JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
b. Eisenach, Germany / March 21, 1685
d. Leipzig, Germany / July 28, 1750
Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041 - MVT I Allegro
Johann Sebastian Bach’s prowess as a keyboard player is well known. As a church musician much of his career was spent in the organ loft providing music for devotional use. But it is interesting to remember that J. S. Bach began his musical life studying violin with his father, and later his eldest brother. Reflecting on his father’s career, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach observed, ''In his youth and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord…He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments.''
Bach wrote countless cantatas and a great deal of organ music while serving in Weimar and Leipzig. But during one of his occasional hiatuses from those demands, he found time to indulge his interest in purely instrumental music, especially sonatas, suites and concertos. There are three violin concertos in the BWV catalogue (1041, 1042 & 1043 – the latter is the “Double Concerto”) and some others that are lost or only exist in a revision for keyboard.
The first of these known concertos has long been a favourite of James Ehnes, the soloist in this performance. He states, “This Bach A minor Concerto is a piece that many students learn as sort of a ‘rite of passage.’ If you study the Suzuki method it’s in one of the books of that, and I remember that’s how I first knew it. It’s a piece that I loved it then, and I love it now, and I’m sure that I’ll love it until the day I die. It’s always interesting, it’s always challenging, it’s always beautiful and there’s always something new to discover with it!”
Bach took his inspiration from the works of his near contemporary, the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi. In Bach’s hands, the three contrasting movements present more of a dialogue between soloist and ensemble, in place of a dispute! In the opening movement, a recurrent theme is exchanged and varied by the musical forces. The stately middle movement is supported by a repeating bass line, while the third movement bounces along in a jaunty jig.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
b. Bonn, Germany / baptized December 17, 1770
d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 - MVT II Allegretto
In popular culture, Beethoven’s symphonies have their fair share of memorable moments: the “heroic” Symphony No. 3, the defiant “dit dit dit-duuuuhhh” opening of Symphony No. 5, and the “Ode to Joy” of the Symphony No. 9. However, during Beethoven’s lifetime, the Symphony No. 7 was exceedingly popular as a celebration of rhythm and propulsive power.
The symphony was composed in 1811 and premiered in Vienna on 8 December 1813. The event was a charitable concert to benefit soldiers wounded in the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Hanau, which had taken place six weeks earlier. Austrian and Bavarian forces had suffered great losses against Napoleon’s retreating forces. Beethoven had previously torn up his dedication of the “Eroica” Symphony to Napoleon. This time he shook a defiant fist at the French Emperor with a musical battle known as Wellington’s Victory. It was the novelty number on the program in that concert. The main attraction proved to be the Symphony No. 7 in A Major. The orchestra at the premiere included some of the greatest musical luminaries of the day, including Spohr, Hummel, Salieri, Meyerbeer, Romberg, Dragonetti, and Giuliani. The second movement Allegretto had to be immediately encored in the performance, and it proved so popular that it was frequently performed independently, sometimes even inserted in place of “less attractive” movements of Beethoven’s other works. The Seventh Symphony was repeated three times in the following 10 weeks and Beethoven himself referred to it as "one of the happiest products of my poor talents.”
It was Richard Wagner who famously described the symphony as a glorification of music in motion. "All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone."
b. Brooklyn, New York, USA / November 14, 1900
d. Sleepy Hollow, New York, USA / December 2, 1990
Appalachian Spring - Finale
The next excerpt of music comes from the much-loved ballet APPALACHIAN SPRING. Aaron Copland first titled it, simply, “Ballet for Martha” It was the modern dance pioneer Martha Graham and her company who brought the story to the stage in October 1944.
Copland’s score calls for a chamber sized ensemble of just 13 players, and it tells a simple story. It’s spring in the rural Pennsylvania Hills, in the early 1800s. At a newly built farmhouse, a young couple think about their marriage and the joys and challenges of setting up their home in the wilderness. They’re visited by a preacher who delivers a sermon, and an older pioneer woman, who shares her experience and wisdom. Gradually the four of them resolve that whatever troubles they may face, their faith, hope and love will carry them through. It’s a parable about Americans forging their lives in a new land – in the words of the Shaker hymn:
’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
b. Bonn, Germany / baptized December 17, 1770
d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827
If you were to assess a composer’s character based solely on one of his most popular works, Ludwig van Beethoven could be assumed to be a cheerful and optimistic man whose music conveyed the charm and elegance of Mozart. That is decidedly not the description that most would imagine. Where is the defiant radical, the messy-haired musical curmudgeon shaking a defiant fist at the gods of fate? Where is the caricature of the noisy neighbour of Beethoven Lives Upstairs fame? At the turn of the 19th century Beethoven was already breaking new musical ground. It just so happens that the Septet for Winds and Strings in E Flat Major was a musical diversion, composed to please, impress and entertain Viennese society.
Beethoven was shy of his 30th birthday when the Septet was first performed on April 2, 1800, at the Royal Imperial Court Theatre in Vienna. It was dedicated to the Empress Maria Theresa, the second wife of Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor. Italian by birth, she enjoyed courtly life in Vienna, particularly waltzing and dancing. So, what better way for Beethoven to impress the elite members of Viennese society than to produce an easy on the ears serenade that echoed his classical predecessors. The concert, staged to raise money and introduce new works by Beethoven, also featured his Symphony No. 1, a piano concerto, an improvisation by the composer and music by Haydn and Mozart.
The Septet caught the ear of the musical public. Soon there were arrangements of it for all manner of instruments, from piano solo to piano duet, from settings for guitars to a full-scale Harmonie or wind ensemble version. Beethoven himself saw no reason to miss out catering to the hunger of amateur musicians. He scaled down his original setting to be performed by clarinet (or violin), cello, and piano. Beethoven endured demands for more music in the same style, with increasing frustration. Fifteen years after its premiere, people still clamoured for the Septet, leading Beethoven to declare, “That damn work, I wish it could be burned.”
But what’s not to like. The combination of clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, provides a rich sound pallet. The violinist at the premiere was the virtuoso Ignaz Schuppanzigh, so there are plenty of passages with a concerto-like flair. The clarinetist, too, has a starring role opposite the violin. The inclusion of a double bass frees up both the bassoon and the cello to soar to their higher registers. As a musical calling card Beethoven hit the jackpot, much to his chagrin. But the public continues to be all the happier for it.
MODEST PETROVICH MUSSORGSKY
b. Karevo, Russia / March 9, 1839 (March 21, New Style )
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / March 15, 1881 (March 28, New Style )
Pictures at an Exhibition – Baba Yaga & The Great Gate of Kiev
In March of 1881, Modest Mussorgsky sat to have his portrait painted. His green dressing gown, trimmed with dark, red silk is rumpled, as if he has just been roused from his convalescence. His scraggly beard, bed-head hair, hollow eyes and bulbous red nose give a hint to the fact that Mussorgsky was at the end of his days, just shy of his 42nd birthday. The painter, Ilya Repin, was a close friend of the Russian composer, and over the course of four sittings preserved some of the former vigour of his subject, particularly the piercing gaze. But the alcoholism that plagued the composer in his final years had taken its toll. When Repin returned for a final touch up sitting a few days later, Mussorgsky was dead.
Mussorgsky won early success with his tone poem Night on Bald Mountain and the historical opera Boris Godunov. He shared the drive of Mikhail Glinka to develop a uniquely Russian musical identity. Joined by Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, he became part of the “Mighty Handful” of composers who developed a sound separate from more Western-focused traditions at the Moscow and St. Petersburg conservatories.
In his final years Mussorgsky was plagued with thoughts of mortality. Following the death of his friend, the Russian artist and architect Viktor Hartmann, Mussorgsky attended a public exhibition of his works. A suite for solo piano, Pictures at an Exhibition, was the result, in which the composer takes a musical promenade from picture to picture, contemplating each image before moving on to the next. Some of Hartmann’s images survive to this day and others have been long lost, but the written descriptions of the event and Mussorgsky’s musical depictions evoke the experience. [Many of Hartmann’s images can be found online at Wikipedia]
Following the initial Promenade, the first image is a Gnome, a grotesque Christmas Nutcracker with bared teeth and crooked legs. After moving on, an Italian troubadour is seen in front of the ruins of an Italian castle. The sounds of quarreling children are heard in the garden of a French palace, followed by the plodding of heavy oxcart in Poland. The skittering Ballet of Unhatched Chicks was inspired by a costume design for children dressed as fledgling canaries. Separate portraits of two Jewish men, one rich and one poor, are captured, respectively, in a low, stern voice and a nervous, chattering response.
Continuing the promenade through the gallery, Mussorgsky interprets a The Weekly Market at Limoges as an increasingly heated quarrel between two women. From one French scene we are soon taken to Paris, to view the gloomy, underground catacombs built in Roman times. A wall constructed of skulls evokes a chilling hush, before the sudden appearance of Baba Yaga. She is a menacing figure in Slavic folklore, flying through the sky to her forest hut, which is supported by clawed feet.
At the end of the exhibition stands a depiction of the Great Gate of Kiev, inspired by Hartmann’s architectural rendering, complete with an onion domed bell tower. The ceremonial procession, chanting, and tolling of bells brings the program to a thunderous climax.
The original piano suite has been arranged for various ensembles over the years, most notably in an orchestration by Ravel. The present showpiece, for brass and percussion, was prepared by the English conductor, composer and arranger, Elgar Howarth (b.1935). He was a member of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, (for whom he created the setting), and was also one of the trumpeters on the recording of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour!
Program notes by Matthew Baird