Born in Ciboure, France, March 7, 1875; died in Paris, December 28, 1937
With La Valse, Maurice Ravel temporarily abandoned the subtle refinements of his customary Impressionism and opted instead for the tougher, more violent style known as Expressionism, which swept through the European arts after the cataclysm of World War I.
The composer originally conceived La Valse in 1906 as the tone poem Wien ("Vienna"): "a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz," he called it, in tribute to Johann Strauss, Jr. However, by the time he came to write it in 1919–1920, World War I had smashed that enchanted world, along with the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, forever. Though pushing 40 and frail of physique, Ravel had struggled to play his patriotic role for France. Repeatedly turned down by the army and air force, he became a truck driver behind the front lines. When he was demobilized, his health was broken. The death of his beloved mother early in 1917 sent him into a long depression. La Valse was written by a man who had experienced horrors both on the battlefield and in his personal life. There was no longer any possibility of creating a Romantic apotheosis, only, in Ravel's words, "the impression of fantastic and fatal whirling."
Like his beloved Daphnis and Chloé, La Valse was originally intended as a ballet for the flamboyant Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev and given the subtitle "choreographic poem." But when Ravel and a colleague played it in a two-piano version for Diaghilev in April 1920, he dismissed it with a backhanded compliment: "It's a masterpiece … but it's not a ballet. It's a portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet." However, La Valse has been subsequently choreographed several times, with George Balanchine creating a particularly successful version in the 1950s.
Ravel provided a brief synopsis for his ghostly dance, in which nostalgia and horror are superbly blended: "Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees … an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd … The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the [first] fortissimo … An imperial court, about 1855."
The music opens ominously with the dark rumble of low strings and bassoons, and a nightmarish thud in 3/4-time delivered by basses and timpani. A few waltz strains gradually penetrate the mists, then shine forth brilliantly. The ominously dark music returns, and, whirling faster, the waltzes begin to collide with each other in wild harmonic and rhythmic confusion. Finally, even the 3/4-beat breaks down in an orgy of self-destruction — the most violent ending in Ravel's music. In just 12 minutes, we have experienced the most vivid sound portrait imaginable of the end of an era.
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (third doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps and strings.
Born in Liège, then Belgium, December 10, 1822; died in Paris, November 8, 1890
Tonight we hear one of the most beautifully conceived works for piano and orchestra of the late Romantic period, yet one that is all too rarely heard: César Franck’s Symphonic Variations (Variations symphonique). In fact, it was last played here by Leon Fleisher in September 1982 to mark a significant moment in the Orchestra’s history: the opening of the Joseph Meyerhoff Hall.
Perhaps the Symphonic Variations has fallen a little out of fashion in the 21st century, but it hardly deserves that fate. Not the kind of eye-popping virtuoso showpiece that pianists tend to prefer, it is instead a superb blending of soloist and orchestra — a continuously evolving dialogue between equal partners. In that respect, it is very much like its creator, who seemed constitutionally unable to toot his own horn.
Though he lived to nearly 70 and was one of the Paris Conservatoire's most remarkable teachers, César Franck was largely ignored by the French musical establishment during his lifetime. His Belgian birth contributed to his outsider status; in order to become the Conservatoire's professor of organ in 1871, he had to take out French citizenship. Moreover, Franck was a gentle, unworldly man — serious, sincere, and a fervent Catholic — and thus was poorly equipped to deal with the frivolous and highly politicized Parisian musical scene in the second half of the 19th century. But if he was unable or unwilling to fight for recognition, his devoted pupils — among them men soon to become famous themselves, such as Vincent d'Indy, Henri Duparc, Paul Dukas, and Ernest Chausson — were eager to proclaim his greatness. To them, he was almost a living saint — "Pater seraphicus" they called him — and Beethoven's true heir. Their proselytizing and the strength of his late works, including the Symphonic Variations and the D Minor Symphony, made him posthumously famous within a few years of his death in 1890.
The Symphonic Variations was composed in 1885 for the pianist Louis Diémer, who had recently delighted Franck with his performance of the composer’s first concerted work for piano and orchestra, the programmatic Les Djinns. But this subtle and unconventional work failed to sweep the audience to its feet at its premiere in Paris on May 1, 1886; like so many of Franck’s works, it would have to wait some years to become a popular success. Despite its name, it is not really a typical theme-and-variations work such as Beethoven or Brahms would have written. In fact, the variations only take up a few minutes in the middle of a work that, in the words of Donald Francis Tovey, is more “a finely and freely organized fantasia, with an important episode in variation-form.”
The work is divided into three sections: a dramatic and troubled introduction that presents the two principal motives; a set of six variations on a lyrical theme that is only slightly related to those motives; and a scintillating, high-spirited finale that is a more orthodox crowd-pleaser. The home key is F-sharp minor, but the work ends in the more brilliant major.
As many commentators have pointed out, the opening bears a strong resemblance to the opening of the famous slow movement — Orpheus pleading with the rulers of the underworld — of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. In unison, the strings mutter a harsh, aggressive motive in dotted rhythms to which the piano responds with a gently melancholic, downward-sighing idea. These two conflicting motives will underpin the entire work. Soon, the strings, playing in broken pizzicato, hint at the theme to come. But first comes a development of the two motives, led by the piano’s impassioned expansion of its sighing motive, now strengthened a bit by the first motive’s dotted rhythm.
After the meter shifts from 4/4 to a more limpid 3/4 and a slower Allegretto quasi Andante tempo, the piano finally presents the very lovely, gracefully rocking theme upon which the variations will be based. The following six variations flow in such a continuous and unbroken sequence that listeners shouldn’t try too hard to keep track of them. The solo part is always wonderfully suited to the keyboard and brilliant without calling too much attention to its virtuosity, while the richly colored orchestral writing is an ideal complement. Eventually, the tempo slows considerably for the superb sixth variation, which Tovey calls the “the most poetic part of this very poetic work.” It ultimately drifts into a beautiful dream in which time seems to stand still, as the piano floats airy arpeggios over the cellos’ dark murmurings of the sighing motive.
With a shimmering trill, the piano at last reawakens everyone and leads the music into the sparkling, joyous Allegro non troppo finale. Here, both the aggressive dotted-rhythm and sighing motives are transformed into exuberant dances to conclude one of César Franck’s finest musical achievements.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings and solo piano.
Born in Oneg, Novgorod, Russia, April 1, 1873; died in Beverly Hills, California, March 28, 1943.
By 1940, Sergei Rachmaninoff, then 67 and in failing health, believed his composing career was over. Since fleeing Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution in late 1917 for refuge in Western Europe and America, he had managed to create only five substantial works, including his popular keyboard masterpiece Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Many factors contributed to Rachmaninoff's creative drought. Exile from Russia had turned his life upside down: he had forfeited a considerable fortune there, and in America was forced to turn to arduous annual tours as a concert pianist to support his family. One of the greatest pianists of our century, he soon rebuilt his fortune, but a life on Pullman cars shuttling from one concert hall to the next exacted a heavy price on his composing. Pondering his predicament, he wrote: "Perhaps the incessant practice and eternal rush inseparable from life as a concert artist takes too much toll of my strength; perhaps I feel that the kind of music I care to write is not acceptable today. And perhaps my true reason for adopting the life of an interpreter rather than that of a creator … is none of these. For when I left Russia, I left behind the desire to compose: losing my country I lost myself also. To the exile whose musical roots, traditions and background have been annihilated, there remains no desire for self-expression."
But the desire for self-expression still smoldered. In the summer of 1940 as Rachmaninoff recuperated from minor surgery at a rented estate near Huntington, Long Island, it blazed up again for the last time. On August 21, he startled his friend Eugene Ormandy, conductor of his favorite Philadelphia Orchestra with whom he had recorded his concertos and premiered his late works, with this news: "Last week I finished a new symphonic piece, which I naturally want to give first to you and your orchestra. It is called 'Fantastic Dances.' I am beginning the orchestration." A week later, the title was changed to "Symphonic Dances." Ormandy happily accepted the new work, and Rachmaninoff rushed to orchestrate it, virtually backstage, during his fall concert tour, completing it just in time for its premiere by the Philadelphians on January 3, 1941.
His swan song, Symphonic Dances is a retrospective work that sums up Rachmaninoff's musical and personal philosophy. Yet it is also an astonishingly youthful creation that shows the composer at the peak of his powers. With its incisive dance rhythms, it was intended for the ballet, to be choreographed by Rachmaninoff's friend, the great Russian choreographer Michel Fokine, but Fokine's sudden death in 1942 sadly killed that possibility. Here Rachmaninoff creates a wondrous kaleidoscope of instrumental colors, from the mellow crooning of an alto saxophone to the dry-bones clatter of a xylophone. Prone to sentimental excess in his younger days, he maintains a careful balance between emotion and detachment as he surveys the world with the wisdom of a man approaching life's end.
First Movement: Softly, the violins establish the incessant chugging rhythm of the first dance. Woodwinds trace a three-note descending idea that soon grows into the vigorous main theme, driven by the relentless 20th-century pace Rachmaninoff knew all too well. Then the tempo slows for a peaceful oasis. Here Rachmaninoff gives us the last of his heart-stoppingly beautiful tunes, introduced by the mellow alto saxophone, a visitor from Big Band jazz. Violins soon sweep up this gorgeous melody, steeped in the flavor of Russian folk song. In the closing coda, the strings sing a lovely Russian chant-like melody. This is a theme from the composer's First Symphony, a bitter failure in his youth, now recalled with tranquility through a radiant mist of bells, harp, and piano.
Movement two's dance is a phantasmic waltz, like something heard in a dream. It is introduced by ominous brass chords that return to disturb its flow. With difficulty the orchestra tries to launch the waltz; finally the English horn succeeds in establishing the swaying melody. Occasionally, the waltz blossoms lushly in the divided strings, but biting harmonies constantly undercut any sentimentality.
The finale opens with the weary sighs of old age. Here Rachmaninoff's old nemesis, the "Dies Irae" ("Day of Judgment"), a Gregorian funeral chant he used so often in his music, returns as the composer contemplates death. The music seems to describe man's final struggle for life and then its end, as woodwinds vanish upward over a harp glissando. Music of mourning issues then from the depths of the orchestra. But the tempo soon accelerates to a dance of triumph. The "Dies Irae" chant sounds again in the brass, but is vanquished by a rhythmically vivacious Orthodox chant melody rising from low strings and woodwinds. This is the song "Blagosloven Yesi, Gospodi" from Rachmaninoff's choral masterpiece All-Night Vigil, telling of Christ's resurrection. Here the composer seems to be joyfully proclaiming his own faith in resurrected life. At the end of the score, he wrote the words: "I thank Thee, Lord!"
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano and strings.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008
Reproduction of Program Notes in whole or part without permission is prohibited.