top of page

Program Notes for Spring 2022 Concert

By Steven Ledbetter
(Mr. Ledbetter was Program annotator for the Boston Symphony from 1979-1998.)

Paris in Spring!
Sunday, April 24, 2022, 3 p.m.
First Presbyterian Church, 256 Mahoning Avenue, NW, Warren 44483
Susan Davenny Wyner, Music Director & Conductor

Wolfgand Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Overture to The Abduction From the Seraglio, K.384


    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, in Salzburg and baptized as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. He died at his home in Vienna, Austria, on December 5, 1791, at the age of 35.

    Mozart's first stage work for Vienna was not an Italian opera but a German Singspiel, a "sung-play," in which the music may have had the most important part, but which also had a considerable amount of spoken dialogue. This was in fact the conventional way of presenting comic opera in German. The plot had been used just a year before for an opera in Berlin entitled Belmont and Constanze, with music by Johann André. Two factors, aside from the inherent fun of the libretto itself, probably induced Mozart to accept this particular libretto.

    The first was the passion for all things "Turkish" in Vienna, and indeed in Europe. It had been nearly a century since the Turkish siege of Vienna of 1683, but Moslem culture was still exotic and foreign to Europeans. Among the things that everyone "knew" about Islamic culture were that Moslems were forbidden to drink alcohol, that their rulers had numerous wives kept in seraglios (or harems), and that they were brutal, uncultured, and bloodthirsty. And their music used high‑pitched melody instruments and a lot of clanging percussion instruments. All of these stereotypes appear, generally employed for comic effect, in the story of The Abduction From the Seraglio.

    The second reason Mozart may have chosen this libretto is the name of the heroine, Constanze, for at precisely this time the composer was falling love with Constanze Weber while firmly assuring his father off in Salzburg that he was remaining independent and heartfree. To write music expressing the ardent love of Belmonte for his lost Constanze (who, before the curtain rises, has been captured by Turkish pirates and sea and transferred to the harem of Pascha Selim) must have been almost second nature to Mozart in the circumstances.

    Mozart copied out the theme of the first 14 measures of the overture and included them in a letter to his father with the comment, "It is very short, with alternate fortes and pianos, and the Turkish music always coming in at the fortes." This "Turkish music" consists of triangle, cymbals, and bass drum, plus the piccolo for melodic purposes. It was loud and effective, by eighteenth century standards. Mozart summarized the Presto section for his father: "The overture modulates through different keys, and I doubt whether anyone, even though his previous night has been a sleepless one, could go to sleep over it."

    The opening Presto comes to a full stop in the dominant key of G. A new theme appears, Andante, in the violins, repeated at once in E flat on the oboe. First-time listeners have no way of knowing that this is actually a reference to the opera's opening aria, in which Belmont sings, "Is this where I shall see you? Constanze, my joy!" It makes, in any case, a striking contrast -- "European" music, as opposed to "Turkish" music. The Presto returns in the manner of a recapitulation.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun


    Achille-Claude Debussy was born at St. Germain-en-Laye, Department of Seine-et-Oise, France, on August 22, 1862, and died in Paris on March 25, 1918. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune known in English as Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, is a symphonic poem for orchestra, approximately 10 minutes in duration. It was composed in the year 1894 and was first performed in Paris on December 22, 1894, conducted by Gustave Doret. The flute solo was played by Georges Barrère. The work is scored for three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets in A and Bflat, two bassoons, four horns, two harps, two crotales and strings.

    In 1865 the poet Stéphane Mallarmé produced a Monologue d'un faune, with which he hoped to obtain a performance at the Comédie Française. Having been told that his work would be of no interest as a theatrical piece, he put it aside for a decade. In 1875, Mallarmé tried to get his work published as Improvisation du faune in a literary anthology, again without success. Finally, the following year, he brought out his first book, which contained the text of the eclogue entitled L'Après-midi d'un faune. Mallarmé continued to hope for a theatrical performance; as late as 1891 he promised in print to produce a new version for the theater. Throughout his life, he was also interested in music; he had even written an essay on Wagner for the Revue wagnerienne in 1885. His own poetry, he said, was inspired by "music proper, which we must raid and paraphrase, if our own music [poetry] is struck dumb, is insufficient."

    Debussy had already set a Mallarmé text as early as 1884. We can be sure that poet and composer were personally acquainted by 1892, when they both attended a performance of Maeterlinck's drama Pelléas et Mélisande, and it is certainly likely that they discussed the musical possibilities of Mallarmé's Faune. Debussy began composition of the Prélude that year, along with most of the other compositions that were to occupy him for the next decade: his String Quartet, the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the Nocturnes for orchestra, and a number of songs. Years later he recalled that when Mallarmé heard the music for the first time (apparently the composer's own performance at the piano in his apartment), he commented, "I was not expecting anything of this kind! This music prolongs the emotion of my poem and sets its scene more vividly than color."

    The first performance of the Prélude made Debussy famous overnight; the striking character of this music, which everyone experienced as something quite new, established his personality even in the eyes of those critics who expressed a wish for "an art more neat, more robust, more masculine."

    The freshness comes in part from the delicacy of the instrumentation, which is filled with wonderfully new effects, of which the brilliant splash of the harp glissando over a dissonant chord at the end of the first flute phrase is only the first. The careful bridging of sections, so that nothing ever quite comes to a full close without suggesting continuation, effectively blurs what is, after all, a fairly straightforward ABA form. Debussy's success in obtaining this fluid, pastel effect can be measured by the fact that musicians still argue about where the various sections begin and end. Most listeners, though, have been content to wallow in this exquisitely wrought play of color, harmony and misty melody without bothering to consider how much of the future was already implicit in this brief score.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Fêtes, from Nocturnes


    Debussy's three Nocturnes, which went through an extended genesis described below, were composed during the 1890s, reaching more or less their present form between 1897 and 1899. Debussy later made substantial revisions in the orchestration of Fêtes, and the work is now performed according to the revised score, which was published posthumously in 1930. Fêtes is scored for three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets in F, three trombones and tuba, two harps, timpani, cymbals, snare drum and strings.

    The first performance of the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune in 1894 had made Debussy instantly famous. By the date of that performance he had already embarked on his next major orchestral work, the Nocturnes, which, with Pelléas et Mélisande, were to occupy his attention for the rest of the 1890s. It seems that the Nocturnes went through at least two early versions before resulting in the music we know today, although Debussy's manuscripts for the earlier versions — if they were ever written out — no longer exist.

    The second of the three Nocturnes, Fêtes (“Festivals”) is rich with color. Debussy is supposed to have said that he was inspired by the merrymaking in the Bois de Boulogne, although the brilliant processions through Paris at the time of the Franco-Russian alliance, signed in 1896, probably played a part in the final conception of the music, with its fanfares heard softly in the distance, growing to splendid display, and then fading away as the music again dissolves into silence.

Margaret Brouwer (b.1940)
Pulse​ (2003)

    The award-winning composer Margaret Brouwer has earned critical accolades for her music's lyricism, musical imagery and emotional power. The Dallas Morning News praised her for having "one of the most delicate ears and inventive imaginations among contemporary American composers."

    Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, February 8, 1940, she has received notable commissions from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the American Composer's Orchestra, the American Pianists Association, CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, among many others. Her music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, the Kennedy Center, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Philips Gallery, and by major organizations throughout the U.S., Germany and Taiwan.

Margaret Brouwer

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center has created a special Margaret Brouwer Collection which makes her scores, manuscripts, papers and recordings available for research by scholars, composers and performers. From 1996 to 2008 Brouwer served as head of the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music where she is now professor emeritus. She is founder of Blue Streak, a contemporary chamber music ensemble, which records on Naxos CD, and tours the country performing innovative and eclectic programs. Brouwer devoted 2016 to 2018 to composing her 80-minute oratorio, Voice of the Lake, meant to encourage interest and concern for Lake Erie and other threatened bodies of water.

 

    About Pulse Brouwer writes, "Pulse was commissioned by the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Rhythmic pulses of differing values exist over a steady grand pulse that is the same for all. The spirit motive emerges; mysterious, rustling, and whispery, flowing through with melody -- and in the end becomes infused and strengthened by connections of differing values and pulses."

 

    When Marin Alsop conducted a performance of Pulse at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in 2011, the San Francisco Chronicle described the piece as, "A brilliant and witty play of motor rhythms with a sinuously melodic middle section -- a piece far too lovely to be so short."

 

Notes by Susan Davenny Wyner

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Firebird, Suite (1919 version)


    Igor Stravinsky was born at Oranienbaum, Russia, on June 17, 1882, and died in New York on April 6, 1971. He began composition of The Firebird in early November 1909 at a "dacha" of the Rimsky‑Korsakov family near St. Petersburg. He completed the score in the city, finishing the actual composition in March and the full score a month later; following some further retouching, the final score bears the date May 18, 1910. Commissioned by Diaghilev as a ballet in two scenes, the work was first performed by the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opéra on June 25, 1910. Stravinsky made suites from the ballet on three separate occasions, the first in 1911 (employing virtually the original huge orchestration), the second in 1919 (for a much smaller orchestra), and the third in 1945 (using the same orchestra as the second but containing more music). The instrumentation for the 1919 version includes two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, xylophone, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, harp, piano (with celesta optional) and strings. Duration is about 23 minutes.

    The notorious inability of Anatol Liadov to finish his scores in time gave Stravinsky his first big break. In 1909, Sergei Diaghilev needed to find a fast-working composer for a new ballet based on the old Russian legend of the Firebird. Having been impressed by Stravinsky's Fireworks, which he had heard a few months earlier, Diaghilev went to Stravinsky to discuss a possible commission for The Firebird. Though deeply engrossed in his opera The Nightingale, Stravinsky recognized that a commission from Diaghilev with a production in Paris was an opportunity he could not turn down. In fact, he was so enthusiastic that he began sketching the music before the formal commission finally reached him. He composed the large score between November 1909 and March 1910; the final details of the full score were finished by May 18.

​    The premiere of the lavishly colorful score marked a signal triumph for the Ballets Russes and put the name of Stravinsky on the map. Diaghilev quickly signed him up for more ballets, and in short order he turned out Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, with which he brought on a musical revolution. The original score of Firebird called for an enormous orchestra. Following World War I, in 1919, Stravinsky made a version of his suite from the ballet for a standard-sized symphony orchestra, in order to encourage more performances.

    The scenario of The Firebird involves the interaction of human characters with two supernatural figures, the magic Firebird (a sort of good fairy), and the evil sorcerer Kashchei, a green‑taloned ogre who cannot be killed except by destroying his soul, which is preserved in a casket in the form of an egg.

    Kashchei has an enchanted garden where he keeps 13 captured princesses, who are allowed out only at night. The young prince Ivan Tsarevich accidentally discovers the garden while pursuing the fabulous firebird. He captures the bird near a tree of magical golden apples. The firebird begs, in dance, to be set free, and the prince finally agrees, but takes one magic feather as a token. The enchanted princesses appear tentatively and shake the apple tree, then use the fallen apples for a game of catch. Ivan Tsarevich interrupts their game, for he has fallen in love with one of them. They dance a stately slow dance. In pursuit of the princesses as they leave, Ivan Tsarevitch enters the palace, where he is captured by the monsters that serve as Kashchei's guards.

    Kashchei arrives and threatens to turn the prince into stone, but Ivan Tsarevich waves the feather, summoning the Firebird to his aid. The magic bird sets Kashchei's followers to treading an "infernal dance" of energetic syncopation. This gives the prince the opportunity to find and destroy the egg that contains the ogre's soul. This act released from their spell many knights that had previously been turned to stone. They come back to life (to music with a sweetly descending phrase of folklike character). Knights and princesses all take part in a dance of general happiness (a more energetic version of the same phrase). The Firebird has disappeared, but her music, now rendered more "human" in triadic harmony, sounds in the orchestra as the curtain falls.

    Stravinsky distinguished musically between the human and the supernatural elements of the story by using diatonic, often folk‑like, melodies for the human characters and chromatic ideas for the supernatural figures by chromatic ideas (slithery melodies for Kashchei and his realm, shimmering arabesques for the Firebird).

    The suite contains the ballet's introduction, with its mood of magical awe. The double basses present a melodic figure (two semitones and a major third) that lies behind all the music of the Firebird. Following a culminating shower of brilliant harmonics on the violins (played with a new technique discovered by Stravinsky for this passage), a muted horn call signals the rise of the curtain on a nocturnal scene in the "Enchanted Garden of Kashchei," which continues the mysterious music of the opening (a chromatic bassoon phrase foreshadows the sorcerer). But when Ivan Tsarevich captures the Firebird, the magical creature appeals to be freed in an extended solo dance; Ivan takes one of its magic feathers before allowing it to depart.

    The next episode is the khorovod (a stately slow round dance) of the enchanted princesses, to one of the favorite passages of the score, a melody first introduced by the solo oboe (this is an actual folk song).

​    The suite then jumps to the moment in which Kashchei begins to turn Ivan into stone, making a series of magic gestures: one—two—... But before he can make the third and final gesture, Ivan Tsarevich remembers the Firebird's feather; he waves it, summoning the Firebird to his aid. Kashchei's followers are enchanted by the magic bird, who sets them dancing to an "infernal dance" of wild syncopation and striking energy. Here is where the original 1911 suite ended, but in 1912 Stravinsky published the "Lullaby" separately, and it became a popular part of all later suites from the ballet, followed by the original finale with its impressive scene of the petrified warriors returning to life.

​    There are things in the The Firebird that already foreshadow the revolutionary composer to come: the inventive ear for new and striking sounds, the love of rhythmic irregularities (though there is much less of it here than in Le Sacre!), and the predilection for using ostinatos to build up passages of great excitement. In listening to this familiar score, we may be able to sense afresh the excitement of being on the verge of a revolution. 

bottom of page