Program Notes: Concert 3

The Natural World

Three years ago we played a program of music which evoked the creation and continuous renewal of our world by composers Darius Milhaud, Jean-Fery Rebel , and Antonio Vivaldi.  That concert featured two musical depictions of the emergence of the earth from chaos and a celebration of the four seasons.   In the course of choosing the works for that concert, a number of other possible selections hit the cutting room floor.  This concert picks those scores up and brings them to you.

This grouping offers a piece that was nicknamed by admirers, a set of pieces spanning three centuries written to sonically evoke concrete creatures and elements of nature, and another musical approach to celebrating the four seasons.

Ludwig van Beethoven did not give his Sonata in F major, opus 24 the nickname “Spring”.  No one knows who did, but the name couldn’t be more apt to describe this sparkling, joyful music.  Beethoven always drew inspiration and sustenance from nature.  Retreats to the countryside were an important aspect of his creative life, the bucolic world nurturing his gentle and tender nature in stark contrast to the emotional upheavals of his inner life.  In a letter to a friend, Baroness von Drossdick, he wrote, “How happy I am to be able to wander among bushes and herbs, under trees and over rocks; no man can love the country as I love it. Woods, trees and rocks send back the echo that man desires.”

The Spring Sonata is the fifth of Beethoven’s ten sonatas for violin and piano and was composed between 1800-1801. It is dedicated to his very generous patron Count Moritz von Fries.   Beethoven had intended it to be paired with his 4th sonata and catalogued as opus 23 no. 2, but the engraver preparing the score for publication mislabeled it. 

The gorgeous, lyric opening melody of the Allegro is unforgettable.  The contrasting second theme provides sparks, and the two very different musical energies push and pull the music throughout the movement.  Note that this is quite the opposite of the expected, a more assertive first melody followed by a gentler theme. The second movement, Adagio molto expressivo, features a florid melody presented first in the piano.  Tunes with varying embellishment are passed between the instruments throughout the movement.  The Scherzo and trio also features music passed back and forth between violin and piano but now infused with humor and lightness as if playing a game.  The final Rondo begins with a surprisingly lyric main melody (as in the first movement, opposite of the expected) which cycles back from very energetic musical departures.  The work ends in an exuberant flourish.

 The next three works taken as a set depict birds, the wind, and flowers. 

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber is one of the most important representatives of the German violin school which developed in the second half of the 17th century.  He held jobs in Bohemia and Austria and wrote a great number of pieces for violin solo as well as music for string ensemble. From 1668 to 1670 Biber worked in the service of the Bishop of Olmütz, Karl Leichtenstein-Castelcorno.  Many of his manuscripts survived in the musical archives of the bishop’s chapel.

The Sonata representative, assumed to have been written around 1669, is a wonderful example of music in which the violin imitates animals.  There is no question that Biber drew inspiration from a great Italian violin virtuoso, Carlo Farina (c. 1604-1639), who lived and worked in Dresden.  Farina’s Capriccio stravagante was an early example of this kind of musical impersonation. German violinists were very fond of this kind of work. 

John Luther Adams is a Pulitzer prize-winning American composer.  He began his musical life as a teenager playing drums in rock bands.  After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts he began working in Environmental Protection which took him to Alaska in 1975.  In 1978 he settled there and remained until 2014.  Adams describes his works as, “…profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place. Through sustained listening to the subtle resonances of the northern soundscape, I hope to explore the territory of sonic geography—that region between place and culture…between environment and imagination

At 4,086 ft., MacLaren Summit is the second highest highway pass on the Alaska road system. From there you can see spectacular views of the Alaska Range, MacLaren Glacier, and the MacLaren River.  Maclaren Summit, the middle movement of Adams’ string quartet The Wind in High Places, uses the string family’s natural harmonics to imitate the whistling of wind.  The music propels forward eventually becoming an intricate four-part canon.  Critic John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “There is no real development here, no musical ideas in a conventional sense. Softly undulating strings and open fifths become the aural equivalent of daylight breaking over the rocky Alaskan peaks.”

In most parts of the world, the chrysanthemum is a flower that symbolizes joy and prosperity.  In Italy it represents sadness and sorrow.  Giacomo Puccini’s glorious miniature for string quartet, Crisantemi, is an elegy written in a single night in response to the death of the Duke of Savoy.  Puccini was the first to admit his real talent was for creating opera, but that didn’t stop him from occasionally writing other types of pieces.  He had a special affinity for the string quartet and wrote at least five works for it.  These are now largely ignored. 

Cristanemi is a single, continuous movement.  The piece is more often heard in its arrangement for string orchestra.  Puccini so loved his two main brooding melodies that he reused them in his opera Manon Lescaut from 1893.

Astor Piazzolla is recognized as the greatest master of the modern tango.  He was born in 1921 in Argentina but lived with his father in New York City from 1924-1937. By age ten, it was obvious he was a major musical talent, and at age sixteen he returned to Buenos Aires to join the tango orchestra of Anibal Troilo as arranger and bandoneón player.  In addition to expanding his expertise as a tango player, Piazzola studied classical composition with Alberto Ginastera.  In 1954 he composed a symphony that won him a scholarship to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.  When he returned from Paris in 1956 he formed his own group which combined traditional tango and Argentinean folk music with jazz, classical and pop styles. This came to be known as “Nuevo Tango

Las Quatro Estaciones Porteñas (“The Four Seasons“) is a concert work originally composed for solo piano.  It was arranged for his own ensemble and eventually many other combinations of instruments.  Unlike Vivaldi’s “Seasons”, an amazing group of four violin concerti which are specifically pictorial, Piazzolla’s work is a more general reaction to the annual cycle of nature as experienced in Buenos Aires.

These arrangements for violin, cello, and piano were done by José Bragato (1915 –2017), an Italian-born Argentine cellist and longtime Piazzolla ensemble member.