Claude Debussy (b. St.-Germain-en-Laye, France, August 22, 1862; d. Paris, France, March 25, 1918)
In its original form for piano, Petite Suite was first performed on February 2, 1889 by Debussy in collaboration with the pianist-publisher Jacques Durand. The work has a simple lyricism that contrasts with much of the composer's music from the late 1880's, which was marked by trend-setting harmonies and colors that drew the wrath of contemporary critics for being "too modernistic." It may in fact originally have been written, possibly at the suggestion of Durand, for the skilled amateur musicians who commanded a great deal of attention at this period, and who demanded chamber music that they could master. The piece in any case is designed to entertain and delight.
There are four separate movements, each originally crafted to give equal opportunities to both pianists. En bateau, or "In a Boat," the first movement, has an exquisite melody that is accompanied by broken chords that clearly suggest ripples, eddies, and whirlpools in water. Simple though it may be, this movement actually uses one of the signature elements of Debussy's later harmonic style—the wholetone scale. The next movement, entitled Cortège, reminds the listener of a festival parade, a marching band processing past in an exhilarating rush of musical pageantry. The beautiful Minuet follows, and is pure musical magic. The Suite's most memorable movement, it suggests the musical equivalent of elves at play. In two of its passages, Debussy treats the melody in parallel tenths, creating an eerie, open sound and foreshadowing a compositional technique that he was later to exploit further. The final movement is an energetic, festive dance movement with the title Ballet.
Astor Piazzolla (b. Mar del Plata, Argentina, March 11, 1921; d. Buenos Aires, July 4, 1992)
Piazzolla was a marvelous composer with a distinctive musical sound that combined jazz and the Argentinian tango of his native land together with classical forms and twentieth century harmonic ideas. His music is filled with exciting rhythms that seem to insist that the listener dance to their hypnotic beat, and with luscious harmonies that incorporate dissonance yet remain largely tonal. He was without question Argentina's greatest cultural export, both as an unprecedented virtuoso on his chosen instrument, the bandoneon—a large button accordion that is a common folk instrument in Latin American countries—and as a composer. Most notably, he single-handedly took the tango, an earthy, sensual, often disreputable folk music that he enjoyed as a child, and elevated it into a sophisticated form of high art. The term nuevo tango was coined to designate the modernization of the tango by Piazzolla and his followers.
The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires is an extraordinarily interesting work. In its final shape, it takes a tango-inspired work by Piazzolla and combines it with elements easily recognizable from Vivaldi's model. Not only does it share with Vivaldi the general concept of depicting four seasons in music; it also presents a solo violin featured within an orchestral texture in highly virtuosic style. Yet initially, this work was written for a folk ensemble, not at all for virtuoso violin. The first to perform it was the composer's own folk/chamber ensemble, specialists in nuevo tango.
In 1991 Jaques Morelenbaum arranged the work for a woodwind quintet, three cellos, and a double bass; and it was recorded for an album called The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. The title paid obvious homage to Vivaldi's idea. Nevertheless, there was still no solo violin part in either the folk ensemble version or the classical chamber music version of the piece, and neither
version made harmonic or melodic references to Vivaldi. Finally, in the late 1990's, Leonid Desyatnikov arranged the classical chamber music version for full string orchestra with solo violin, and included obvious allusions to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. This is the version of the work we will hear today.
Desyatnikov's linkages to Vivaldi are ingenious. For instance, when it is summer in Argentina, Piazzolla's homeland, it is winter in Italy, Vivaldi's homeland. To recognize this, Desyatnikov took Piazzolla's Summer movement and skillfully wove direct quotes from Vivaldi's Winter movement into the texture of the music. For those familiar with Vivaldi's music, the insertion is obvious and creates a delightful "Ah-HA" moment of recognition. Listeners unfamiliar with the Vivaldi work may miss this fun; but they will still respond to the exciting rhythmic momentum established by Piazzolla's tango-inspired rhythmic pulse and Desyatnikov's skillfully orchestrated arrangement.
Piazzolla was an experimenter. Expressive dissonances and abrupt shifts in tempo and meter are elements of his style that demand the audience's concentration and yet continually delight the imagination. Desyatnikov has taken those elements and transferred them into the world of the virtuoso violin concerto. Various special effects on the instruments required to perform this work continually entertain and amaze us. The extraordinarily difficult solo violin part is played sometimes using the bow hair, and at other times the wooden part of the bow. In all four movements, the string instruments turn into an extended percussion section, and then revert to a more traditional style.
In Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, each season includes three short movements. Piazzolla's variation gives each season only one movement. Each of Piazzolla's seasons, however, contains several sections that depict different moods within the single movement. The Summer movement, for example, contrasts the sassy, rhythmic tango with remnants of the Italian Baroque. An extended, melancholy cello solo dominates the first section of the Fall season. Slow, sultry, yet intensely rhythmic, Winter gives the solo violinist the perfect opportunity for cadenza-like displays of virtuosity. Even more quotes from Vivaldi, this time from his Summer, are woven seamlessly into Piazzolla's intensely emotional Winter tango. In contrast, Spring in Buenos Aires is filled with excitement and a rhythmic electricity that propels the work to its brilliant conclusion.
Cuatro estaciones porteñas is a significant, highly entertaining, ingenious and inspired addition to the 20th-century violin repertoire.
Hector Berlioz (b. La Côte-St.-André, Isère, France December 11, 1803; d. Paris, France, March 8, 1869)
Symphonie fantastique is the result of Hector Berlioz's intense infatuation with a pretty British actress named Harriet Smithson. She had come to Paris to perform in a Shakespeare play. Berlioz, who idolized Shakespeare, eagerly went to see the production, and was smitten. But this was not just any infatuation. Berlioz exemplified the ardently irrepressible genius that was the driving force of French Romanticism; and his new-found muse inspired him to create one of the most historically influential works in the entire symphonic repertoire.
Passionate infatuation, however, is not what makes this work so significant. Berlioz took Beethoven's idea from the Pastoral Symphony – that is, to tell a continuous story in a multi-movement symphonic form -- and exploited it fully. He expanded the traditional four movement symphony into a five-movement structure, and united the whole work with a recurring musical motive that he called the idée fixe. This motive, to him, exemplified the grace and beauty of his Beloved. He also united the work by creating a story that links the movements. The asymmetrical quality of his melodies is one of the distinctive features of Berlioz's musical imagination; and in the Symphonie fantastique, the long-breathed, unpredictable melodic lines have a discursive feel, in a sort of musical metaphor for the work's literary intentions.
When the work was first performed under the composer's direction on December 5, 1830, a program was given to the audience with a fanciful prose description of that unifying story. It begins: "A young musician of morbid sensibility…in a paroxysm of lovesick despair attempts suicide, but takes only enough laudanum to induce hallucinations, in which his Beloved appears as a recurring melody with several personalities, finally as a bacchante at a satanic ritual." (See Berlioz's program at the end of these notes.)
The first movement opens with a slow section depicting the hero's despair. The Beloved theme is introduced and becomes the main theme of the movement's sonata structure.
After this first sighting of the Beloved, the hero goes to a dance and encounters her again. This second movement, called A Ball, is essentially a waltz without the typical central section. The flute and oboe now play the Beloved theme in a unison triple time transformation of the now-familiar melody. In the next day of the hero's drug-induced dream, he goes to a Scene in the Country. This slow movement is a pastoral transformation of the theme, complete with antiphonal shepherds' duet on oboe and English horn. In one of Berlioz's typically colorful orchestrations, four timpanists playing very softly imitate a distant storm before the two shepherds reappear to lead their flocks homeward.
The hero's dreams then turn dramatically morbid. The fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, recreates a scene from the French Revolution. The protagonist dreams that he has been sentenced to death for killing his Beloved. The Beloved theme appears only briefly in this movement in a humorous transformation scored comically for the highest, or E-flat clarinet…as though the Beloved has come back to mock his fate. The music graphically portrays a mob scene that concludes with the protagonist's death; he is guillotined and his head bounces into a waiting basket with pizzicato precision while the crowd shouts wild approval.
The final movement was perhaps most influential in catapulting this work into the historical hall of fame. Totally without precedent before 1830, in a burst of originality it liberates orchestral color, overthrows the tyranny of bar-lines and downbeat accents, and boasts an interior four-part structure that had never before been used. The movement simply thumbs its nose at the academic musical dogmas of the time.
The first section of Dream of the Witches' Sabbath includes the Beloved's melody, which is now further distorted and vulgarized by the clarinets. Distant bells announce the movement's second section, in which bassoons and tuba play the hauntingly recognizable Dies irae chant from the Gregorian Mass for the Dead. The third section is a macabre dance of the witches, a fantastic yet frightening fugue. The final section melds ominous statements of the apocalyptic Dies irae with the theme from the fugal witches' dance—light and darkness in a duel of wills. The idée fixe makes its final appearance, transformed into a cheap music-hall tune as the figure of the Beloved assumes center-stage in the witches' sabbath celebration, mocking the protagonist's misplaced passion and miserable fate. So we reach the electrifying end of a profound example of compositional brilliance.
Berlioz's program notes for Symphonie Fantastique follow:
"Part I: Reveries--Passions. The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears in the mind's eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his Beloved. This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every moment of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its moments of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations--this is the subject of the first movement.
"Part II: A Ball. The artist finds himself in the most varied situations--in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of nature; but everywhere, in the town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.
"Part III: Scene in the Country. Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches (shepherd's song) in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found reason to entertain--all come together to afford his heart an unaccustomed calm, and to give a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. But what if she were deceiving him! This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. Distant thunder--loneliness--silence.
"Part IV: March to the Scaffold. Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his Beloved, that he is condemned to death and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is sometimes somber and fierce, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled sound of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end, the idée fixe returns for a moment, like a final thought of love before the fatal blow.
"Part V: A Witches' Sabbath. He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, and monsters of every species, all gathered for his funeral; strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The Beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is now no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial and grotesque. It is she, coming to join the sabbath ... a roar of joy at her arrival. She takes part in the devilish orgy--funeral knell--burlesque parody of the Dies irae--sabbath round-dance--the sabbath round-dance and the Dies irae combined."