By Steven Ledbetter Mr. Ledbetter was Program annotator for the Boston Symphony from 1979-1998. Additional content by Susan Davenny Wyner
Luminous and Dancing Spirits! Sunday, October 23, 2022, 3 p.m. First Presbyterian Church, 256 Mahoning Avenue, NW, Warren 44483
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) Overture in C Major
Fanny Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, on November 14, 1805, and died in Berlin, Germany, on May 14, 1847. Though the exact date of the Overture in C Major is not decipherable from the manuscript, scholars believe it was written between 1830-1832, about the same time Felix was writing his Italian Symphony. The Overture was not published until 1994.
Fanny Mendelssohn, like her younger brother Felix, was a prodigy. She received a thorough musical education from her mother and other teachers in composition and piano, but even so, she stunned her family when at the age of 13 she gave her father a birthday present by performing all of the 24 preludes and fugues of Bach from memory. Even her brother admitted that she was a greater pianist than he. Fanny went on to compose over 450 pieces of music in her lifetime — many of them songs, but also oratorios for orchestra, soloists and choir, four cantatas, and works for piano, piano trio, piano quartet, string quartet. She was an invaluable resource for her younger brother Felix. They were very close. He relied on her constructive criticism and called her his "Minerva."
For us in modern times, the painful aspect of her extraordinary gift is that because of her social status and position as a woman in society, she was discouraged by her father, and even by Felix from performing in public or publishing her works. Instead, she held "Salons" which were glorious affairs always crowded, prized by Liszt and literati such as Goethe, during which she performed her piano works, songs, and conducted her overture and oratorios. Her husband, the court painter, Wilhelm Hensel, fully supported his wife's gifts, but after their marriage she concentrated on writing mostly songs and smaller scale pieces.
The Overture in C Major, which is the only purely orchestral work she wrote, was conducted by Fanny in two salon concerts, but then sat gathering dust in the Mendelssohn Archive in Berlin until its release was arranged by Judith Rosen of the Women's Philharmonic Orchestra. The much-revised handwritten score was deciphered and then recorded by JoAnn Falletta and the Women's Philharmonic only in 1992!
The Overture, which is now beginning to be performed, is remarkable for its warmth, its flexibility of phrasing, its imaginative use of the instruments, its puckish quality, its surprises, including the dramatic arrival of fierce episodes which may strike the imagination as unexpected thunderstorms. She writes compellingly for the woodwinds, gives the strings surprising flair, and draws us into exquisite harmonic mysteries.
In some of its formal orchestral moves and colorations one can hear a kinship with her brother — who adored his older sister. Distraught by her loss, he died only a few months later. This overture teases our appetite. One can only wish she had been able to write more. — Susan Davenny Wyner
Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949) Five Greek Dances for Strings
Nikos Skalkottas was born in Halkis, Evia, Greece, on March 21, 1904, and died in Athens, September 20, 1949.
Both the father and grandfather of Nikos Skalkottas were musicians — his grandfather a renowned folk singer, violinist, and composer, his father a flutist. Nikos was a child prodigy as a violinist, beginning his studies with an uncle in his hometown, then continuing at the Athens Conservatory, where he won the first prize in violin at the age of 16. He went to Berlin in 1921, first studying violin with Willy Hess. But in 1923 he began composing, and in 1925 he decided to give up plans for a solo career to concentrate on composition. In 1925-27 he studied with Philipp Jarnach, and then (1927-31) with Arnold Schoenberg. He also had some lessons with Kurt Weill (1927-28).
For several years his work in Berlin was aided by a wealthy patron, but a combination of circumstances — the end of the patron's support, an unhappy love affair, material difficulties — caused him to leave Berlin in 1933 and return to Athens, where, for two years he was subject to severe depression and composed little. The bulk of his work was composed in the decade from 1935-1945. His character changed from good humor to introverted pessimism, largely because of the hostility and indifference he met in his homeland. He supported himself as a back-desk orchestral violinist, working after hours on his own compositions, but few of these achieved even a single performance in the musically conservative environment of Athens, where the national school was folklorist in orientation. Rarely discussing his work in public, Skalkottas composed in extreme isolation. He died in 1949 of a strangulated hernia that he neglected to treat.
Nonetheless, in spite of the general lack of attention to his non-tonal music, Skalkottas received considerable acclaim at the time for a series of 36 Greek dances composed between 1931 and 1936 for orchestra. Though probably not ever played at a single event (though they have been recorded as a group), the 36 Greek folk dances provide a colorful and varied body of folk-based music that was not only rearranged by Skalkottas himself into various versions late in his life, but also performed in groups assembled by others.
The Five Greek dances to be heard here were grouped by the conductor Walter Goehr, who in 1956 added the double bass line to Skalkottas's arrangement written for two violins, viola, and cello, thus producing a set for string orchestra that has been particularly popular.
Note from Susan Davenny Wyner: These dances take us on a musical tour of Greece, spanning its coastal and mountainous regions. The rhythms are often unexpected, the harmonies surprising, and the effects he gets from his strings could only have come from a master violinist.
Epirotikos is from Epiros, a heavy-footed men's dance originating in a rugged area with a complex cultural history.
Kretikos is from Crete, and its melodies would have been played on the Cretan lyre, a small, bowed string instrument with a distinctive nasal sound.
Tsamikos comes from Chameria (the ancient name for the coastal region in southern Albania and Greece). It is in 3/4 time with many crisscrossing rhythms. Dancers hold each other's hands, bent 90 degrees upwards at the elbows. The last person of the line often performs high acrobatic leaps, usually in complicated scissor-like motions with the legs. Popular throughout Greece, it was originally danced only by men, but now both men and women often take part.
Arkadikos from Arcadia in the Peloponnese peninsula is lyrical and gentle in spirit.
Kleftikos, which means 'dance of the thieves,' refers to mountain-dwelling Greeks who fiercely resisted Ottoman rule. It combines rousing effects of pizzicati and sliding glissandi to goad the dancers into high leaps and sudden shifts of direction.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) Hoe Down from Rodeo
Aaron Copland was born on November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York, and died on December 2, 1990, in Sleepy Hollow, New York. He was often referred to as "the Dean of American Composers" by his peers and critics.
Rodeo is the second of the three popular Copland ballets on American subjects, but it is one that Copland did not, at first, look forward to composing. Billy the Kid, composed for Eugene Loring and the Ballet Caravan, had achieved a great success in 1938. Four years later, Agnes De Mille, had an idea for a cowboy ballet. Copland insisted he wasn’t interested in repeating himself, but De Mille said that this one would be different, lighter and even humorous to a degree.
Rodeo tells a simple story with warmth and humor. The tomboyish heroine on a western ranch is pining for the handsome Head Wrangler, but, despite her skill with horse and rope, he pays no attention to her — until she turns up at the Saturday night dance in a pretty dress and a bow in her hair.
As with Billy the Kid, Copland chose real cowboy songs as part of the basic material of his ballet, though here, too, he does more than simply quote them literally. Rodeo gives him the opportunity to treat the tunes with welcome humor, emphasizing certain details to make them stand out. Hoe Down is based on the traditional fiddle tune Bonyparte (along with a brief citation of McLeod's Reel); Copland found the tunes in Ira Ford's Traditional Music of America.
Note from Susan Davenny Wyner: Although Hoe Down was originally written for a huge orchestra, Copland arranged a version for strings alone that captures the spirit of a barn fiddle-fest. That's the version we're doing. It contains the surprise of a false ending -- which suddenly leaps to its feet again as if our hero and heroine can't resist one last whirl before saying goodnight.
Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) Slavonic Dance in E Minor, Starodávny Dumka, Op 72 no.2 Antonín Dvorák was born in Nelahozeves (Mühlhausen), Bohemia, near Prague, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He composed his second set of Slavonic Dances, Opus 72, for piano duet between June 4 and July 9, 1886, scoring them for orchestra between mid-November and the beginning of the following January.
The Slavonic Dances made Dvorák's name outside his native country. His determination to spread Czech, or rather Slavonic, nationalism in his music opened a wellspring of melodic invention that bubbled forth irresistibly. The idea for the work came from the publisher Simrock, who had recently agreed, on Brahms's recommendation, to bring out some of the music of this relatively unknown regional composer. Simrock had made a good profit from Brahms's Hungarian Dances, so he proposed something similar designed to reflect the newcomer's homeland and native traditions. Dvorák readily agreed, and quickly created eight dances.
Simrock paid Dvorák 300 marks for the eight dances Op 46 and was repaid a thousand-fold, as the set became enormously popular. He urged Dvorák to return to that successful line, rather to the composer's irritation, since he was eager to complete large-scale oratorios and symphonies, and he didn't want to repeat himself. In 1886 he wrote to Simrock, “To do the same thing twice is devilishly difficult.” But that summer he suddenly found the proper mood coming on him, and the second set of eight dances Op 72 came forth with almost the same ease and rapidity as the first.
Unlike Brahms, who had arranged existing folk dances and songs in his Hungarian Dances, Dvorák invented his own material in characteristic dance types. At most he took a few fragments from existing material, but thoroughly changed its personality in his treatment. Like all the great masters of dance forms — Schubert, Chopin, Johann Strauss, Sousa, and Scott Joplin, to name a few very diverse examples — Dvorák is able to invent music of astonishingly varied character within the seemingly restrictive bounds of the characteristic meter and tempo.
Note from Susan Davenny Wyner: Op 72 No. 2 Starodávnýin E Minor is a Ukrainian Dumka, a folk ballad dance that is haunting, melancholy and yearning, carrying a feeling of a slow waltz with a lean into the second group of threes. Starodávný literally means "old fashioned" or an old traditional dance, but the meaning is more complex in that it also refers to something that recalls a cherished memory. Dvorak's harmonic language is rich, warm, and soulful, and in a minor key. The surprises come as he interweaves bright, lively major key dance sections, full of sparkling lifts and "hops," suggestive perhaps of happier times, or of a dialogue between past and present.
Manuel De Falla (1876-1946) Ritual Fire Dance, from El Amor brujo
Manuel de Falla was born in Cadiz, Spain, on November 23, 1876, and died in Alta Gracia, Argentina, on November 14, 1946. He composed El Amor Brujo (Love bewitched) for the gypsy singer and dancer Pastora Imperio, who took the leading role, both singing and dancing, in the premiere of the original version at the Teatro Lara in Madrid on April 15, 1915. The following year Falla expanded the orchestration to its present form.
Manuel de Falla, the most important and original of the first generation of native Spanish nationalist composers, began his musical training in his native Cadiz, though he was at first undecided between careers in music or literature. Hearing the music of Edvard Grieg, whose Norwegian nationalism was based on native folk song and with imaginative harmonization, Falla was seized with "an intense desire to create one day something similar with Spanish music." He went to Paris in 1907 and made his reputation there, though the outbreak of World War I forced his return to Spain. Back home again, he produced the first version of the work that became El Amor brujo, usually translated as Love, the Magician, or, more freely, Wedded by Witchcraft. This was first conceived as a specialty piece for a gifted gypsy singer and dancer; later it was greatly enlarged as a full-scale ballet. The first version, premiered in Madrid on April 15, 1915, was not successful, but when Falla presented a concert performance of El Amor brujo, rescored for full orchestra, in 1916, the work attained an instant success.
The scenario of the ballet is simple and straightforward. A beautiful young woman named Candelas is haunted by the ghost of a former lover, who interferes with the wooing of the man she now loves, Carmelo. Each time they are about to seal their love pact with a kiss, the specter of her dead lover appears to interrupt. Carmelo, naturally enough upset by this state of affairs, makes inquiries into the character of the deceased man. Upon learning that he had a notorious roving eye, Carmelo enlists the aid of Candelas's friend Lucía to serve as a decoy. When Candelas and Carmelo meet again, Lucía is on hand; her near presence and alluring behavior diverts the attention of the amorous ghost long enough to allow the young lovers to seal their troth with "the kiss of perfect love," whereupon the specter disappears, never to return, and the morning bells ring out the happiness of the lovers.
One number in particular, the most famous number from the ballet, Danza ritual del fuego (Ritual Dance of Fire), is part of the exorcism. It suggests weird goings-on with its smoky trills, keening oboes and howling horns, while the pounding of chords on the piano builds tremendous excitement. The number went around the world in a version for piano solo made by Falla at the request of his friend Artur Rubinstein, and it is still probably the best-known single piece Falla ever wrote.
Felix Mendelssohn Hensel (1809-1847) Symphony No. 4 in A, Opus 90, Italian
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. He began composing the Italian Symphony while in Rome in the late winter and spring of 1831. Although the date of completion is March 13, 1833, Mendelssohn kept saying he intended to rework it again before allowing it out of his hands permanently. Its first performance took place in London at the concerts of the Philharmonic Society on May 13, 1833, but Mendelssohn felt the need of revisions afterward; as a result, it was not published in his lifetime.
As the son of a well-off middle class German family, Felix Mendelssohn undertook the Grand Tour to the centers of Classical culture in Italy; his tour was somewhat grander than most, extending from early May of 1830 to late June of 1832 and including long stays in Rome, Paris and London. His vivid travel impressions have been preserved in a voluminous correspondence published, illustrated with his own drawings, recounting his immediate response to fresh new experiences and the way these sparked creative ideas in him.
From Rome on December 20, 1830, Felix wrote to his family, "After the new year I intend to resume instrumental music, and to write several things for the piano, and probably a symphony of some kind, for two have been haunting my brain." The two symphonies in question were the ones we know as the Scottish and Italian symphonies. The first of these was a reaction to his visit to Scotland the year before, while the Italian Symphony grew out of his new experiences in Rome and Naples. By mid-January 1831 he wrote that the symphonies were taking shape in his mind and that the hoped to finish them in Italy. By late February, Mendelssohn wrote (quite accurately) that the Italian symphony would be "the most sportive piece I have yet composed, especially the last movement."
It was typical of Mendelssohn to finish the basic work of creation at an astonishing speed — and equally typical for him to take a great deal of time over extensive polishing afterwards. In the case of the Italian Symphony, he conducted a single performance, in Paris in 1832, and then put it away, claiming to find flaws serious enough to need extensive revision. This is hard to imagine today, since the Italian Symphony has long been regarded as one of his most perfect works, but whatever faults — real or imagined — the composer found in the score prevented him from allowing its publication, with the result that it only appeared after his premature death.
The richly assured orchestration makes its mark in the opening measures with a background of repeated chords in the woodwinds over which the violins sing their enthusiastic, soaring theme. The unique sound of the first measure alone is enough to identify this score out of the entire symphonic repertory. The racing activity never stops or slows, even when the strings become the lightest staccato whisper to bring in the clarinets and bassoons with the secondary theme. But shortly before the end of the exposition the activity just barely slows to allow the solo clarinet one superbly romantic moment, whispering the opening theme in notes twice as long as before. Much of the development is based on another new idea treated imitatively in the strings with punctuation from the woodwinds until the latter assert the importance of the main theme on top of everything. The new theme is recapitulated in place of the romantic moment for the clarinet from the exposition, and the coda works all of the preceding ideas in with the concluding material from the first ending in a wonderfully imaginative web.
The second movement seems to evoke a religious procession, beginning with a "wailing" gesture that introduces a measured and rather somber marching theme in D minor.
The third movement is the embodiment of grace, with a light but poetic touch in the horn calls deftly answered by violin and flute scales in the Trio.
The final saltarello (a lively leaping dance) is a whirlwind of rushing activity, from the orchestral trills and punctuating chords of the first measure through the unison statement of the basic rhythm to the end. The biggest surprise, perhaps, is that Mendelssohn begins in the minor mode and, contrary to all expectation, refuses to yield, even in the very last measures, to a conclusion in the major. But the energy and the brilliant orchestration of the whole, the unflagging verve and ceaseless activity, bring on a conclusion that, for all its surprises, is as fully gratifying as any that Mendelssohn ever wrote.
This page was last revised on October 18, 2022.
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