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Three-Cornered Hat

The Three-Cornered Hat—Suites I and II (1917)
Manuel de Falla (Cádiz, Spain, 1876 - Alta Gracia, Argentina, 1946)

Manuel de Falla had a deep love for the folk music of his native Spain, but also the ambition to transcend nationalism in a narrow sense and be universally European both in outlook and in technique.  From 1907-14, Falla lived in Paris where he came into contact with some of the most exciting musical developments of the day.  Upon his return to Spain, he entered a period of intense creativity that resulted in a unique synthesis:  his mature works build, in equal measure, on his early exposure to folk music, his systematic study of all aspects of Spanish tradition under the composer and musicologist Felipe Pedrell, and finally the Paris experience that had greatly broadened his horizons.
    Falla had long known the story of The Three-Cornered Hat.  It was an old folktale, taken up by the poet and novelist Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (1833-1891) in his novel The Magistrate and the Miller's Wife.  Falla first considered setting it to music in 1904, when he was entering a competition at the Academia de Bellas Artes.  According to Falla's friend and biographer Jaime Pahissa, the composer had to choose from three possible subjects for this competition.  He wrote down each title on a piece of paper and drew them from a hat (number of corners unknown).  Fate decided in favor of a libretto by Carlos Fernández Shaw that became La Vida breve.  Yet Falla never forgot about his plans concerning Alarcón's novel, and finally realized them in 1916-17 in collaboration with theater director Gregorio Martínez Sierra and his wife María, who wrote the scenario.  The pantomime El Corregidor y la molinera opened at the Teatro Eslava in Madrid on April 7, 1917.
    Around this time, Falla was approached by Serge Diaghilev, the director of the famous Ballets Russes, always looking for new ballet scores.  Diaghilev had been initially interested in a dance adaptation of Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, but the composer convinced him to choose El Corregidor y la molinera instead.  Because of the war, the ballet could not be staged until 1919, when it opened in London with Leonide Massine in the role of the miller, and sets and costumes by Picasso.  For the occasion, Falla revised and expanded the ballet, re-scoring the original chamber-ensemble accompaniment to a full-size symphony orchestra.  The ballet received the new title El sombrero de tres picos (in French: Le tricorne; in English: The Three-cornered Hat.)
    The two concert suites drawn from the ballet contain the bulk of the entire score.  The opening movement of the first suite—"Introduction; The Afternoon"—depicts the stage where the action unfolds:  the mill where the miller and his wife live.  After a short scene involving the couple, a grotesque bassoon melody announces the arrival of the lecherous magistrate, wearing the three-cornered hat of his office.  The miller’s wife reassures her husband that he has nothing to fear and tells him to hind behind a tree while she dances a fandango to the delight of the eager but clumsy official.  Obliged to treat him with respect, she offers him a bunch of grapes, but as he tries to kiss her, she suddenly moves away, causing the elderly Don Juan to fall on his face.  The miller comes out of hiding; the magistrate, realizing that he has been set up, furiously departs.
    In the second suite, which corresponds to the second part of the ballet, the magistrate  makes a second attempt to seduce the miller’s wife, after having the miller arrested and taken to jail on trumped-up charges.  This time, he falls into the millstream on his way to her house and  ends up in the miller's clothes in the miller's bed (though without the miller's wife) while his own clothes are drying on a chair.  Coming home from jail and seeing the magistrate's uniform, the miller misunderstands the situation, dons the uniform (and the hat!) and decides to take his revenge by visiting the magistrate's wife.  At the end, all the clothes and all the problems are ironed out, the magistrate is humiliated, and the miller reunited with his wife.
    Unlike the first suite which, in addition to the fandango of the miller’s wife, contained two extended action numbers, the second suite is made up of three dance movements.  The first, "The Neighbour's Dance," is a seguidilla, or, to use the more correct plural form, "seguidillas."  (The name of this Spanish dance is a diminutive of "seguida," or 'continuation.')  Both themes of this movement are traditional, the first a Gypsy wedding song, the other a folk song that had also found its way into a popular zarzuela, or Spanish light opera. 
    The second movement, "The Miller's Dance," is a farruca, or a solo flamenco dance, solemn in character in which the neighbors gather around the miller and spur him on with their clapping and their shouts of olé.  Tempo, volume and excitement rise constantly to the end as the miller's dance becomes more and more frenzied.
    The "Final Dance" is a jota, a rapid triple-time dance that is primarily associated with the region of Aragon.  Its string of irresistible melodies mix Spanish folklore with a characteristic sonority complete with harps and muted horns.  Simple themes are chromatically inflected in a most ingenious way, infusing the authentic voice of Spain with modernistic elements.  The prestigious Diaghilev production turned Falla into a European celebrity to a degree hardly ever parallelled by a Spanish composer either before or after him.


Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor (1868)
Camille Saint-Saëns (Paris, 1835 - Algiers, 1921)

No composer has ever been able to match the unbelievable precocity of Mozart, who wrote his first symphony at the age of eight; Camille Saint-Saëns, however, came close.  He first played the piano in public at the age of five, and gave his formal debut at Paris’s Salle Pleyel at ten performing Mozart and Beethoven concertos and offering to play any of Beethoven’s sonatas from memory as an encore.  Saint-Saëns eventually grew up to become a national institution in France, one of the country’s most prominent composers, pianists and organists.  He counted several of the greatest musicians of his time among his friends.  Berlioz admired his talents, as did Franz Liszt, who promoted the performance of his opera Samson and Delilah in Weimar.
    The story of the G-minor Piano Concerto is typical of the man and the way he worked.  Anton Rubinstein, the Russian pianist-composer-conductor was another of Saint-Saëns’s distinguished friends.  The two had known each other since 1858, when the 23-year-old Saint-Saëns sight-read Rubinstein’s new and gigantic "Ocean" Symphony from the full score.  Ten years later, as they gave some concerts together in Paris, with Saint-Saëns conducting and Rubinstein as soloist, it suddenly occurred to them to reverse their roles.  As Saint-Saëns later recalled:

I happened to be at a concert with the great pianist Anton Rubinstein in the Salle Pleyel when he said to me, "I haven’t conducted an orchestra in Paris yet.  Let’s put on a concert that will give me the opportunity of taking the baton."  "With pleasure," I answered.  We asked when the Salle Pleyel would be free and we were told we should have to wait three weeks.  "Very well," I said.  "In those three weeks I will write a concerto for the occasion."  And I wrote the G-minor Concerto which accordingly had its first performance under such distinguished patronage.

    Writing a three-movement concerto in less than three weeks is virtually tantamount to improvisation.  The ideas must have come to Saint-Saëns with such speed that his only difficulty was how to write them down fast enough.
    We may imagine Saint-Saëns sitting at the piano beginning to improvise the first movement of his concerto.  Having decided on the key—G minor—,he strikes the lowest G on the keyborad with its upper octave, and starts playing arpeggios with his right hand.  The arpeggios take a turn that brings a certain Bach prelude to mind; why not play with that idea and develop those arpeggios in J. S. Bach’s style?  Meanwhile, the low G is still being held as a pedal point.  (We should remember that Saint-Saëns was the organist of the Madeleine church in Paris at the time of this concerto; it is very likely that he improvised there in Bach’s style on many a Sunday.)
    Then suddenly Saint-Saëns decides it’s time to change centuries, and, without any warning, he launches into a cascade of runs and arpeggios reminiscent of his friend Liszt.  The orchestra, silent until now, breaks in with a few chords.  But we have yet to hear a real theme, so Saint-Saëns turns his attention to the invention of a melody.  After a measure of introduction, in which we hear the accompaniment alone, a beautiful espressivo melody unfolds.
    Even this theme could well have been improvised by a musician with Saint-Saëns’s gifts.  What follows, however, would have been hard to perform without a great deal of practicing, even though it many have been just as easy to conceive mentally.  The structure of the entire movement remains improvisation-like; the passagework immediately leads to the recapitulation of the theme, a cadenza, and a short coda, in which the quasi-Bachian introductory material returns.
    The second-movement Allegro scherzando is one of the most popular things Saint-Saëns ever wrote.  Its "leggiero" (nimble) first melody jumps and prances around in good cheer.  There is a second theme of a more cantabile character.  The whole movement consists of the free alternation of the two themes.
    The sparkling third movement is based on the rhythm of the Italian tarantella dance.  Like the second movement, it has two alternating themes.  The relentless drive of the music continues unabated to the end.

Although Saint-Saëns was able to complete the concerto in just seventeen days, mastering the technical difficulties of his own work was another matter.  "I played very badly," he wrote after the first performance, "and, except for the scherzo, which was an immediate success, it did not go well.  The general opinion was that the first part lacked coherence and the finale was a complete failure."  The "general opinion" changed very rapidly, however, and Saint-Saëns became more secure in performance.  He played the concerto many more times over the years at concerts including a memorable one in London in 1893 where he shared the program with Tchaikovsky.  Both composers were in England at the time to receive honorary degrees from Cambridge University.
    In the early 1900s, the septuagenarian Saint-Saëns visited the United States on a concert tour that was a great personal triumph.  At this point, he again had problems with performing his Second Concerto.  As he wrote in his article "Impressions of America:"

I had to endeavor to recover my fingering of past days in order to play my Concerto in G minor which everybody wished to hear interpreted by the composer.  This did not please me by any means, for nowadayd young pianists play it better than I do; I prefer to play the Fifth, which is more symphonic and more fitted to my present powers.
    Well then, I played the G minor at Washington before President [Theodore] Roosevelt who, after receiving me most affably, did me the rare and signal honor of coming to listen to my playing.

 

Symphony in D minor (1888)
César Franck (Liège, Netherlands [now Belgium], 1822 - Paris, 1890)

César Franck composed his D-minor symphony at the age of 66, two years before his death.  It was his only symphony, not counting an early work written at the age of 19.  In his own time, Franck was famous as an organist and teacher; as a composer, however, he had been only moderately successful, even though his catalog of works was vast and varied.  Musical life in Paris in the second half of the 19th century was dominated by constant infighting between cliques, which made Franck’s position difficult.  Many considered him an outsider because he had not been born in France; others did not take him seriously because he had written no operas.
    Opera composers, such as Charles Gounod, Ambroise Thomas or Jules Massenet, were in fact the most powerful players on the French music scene.  Opera was the only area of composition where one could speak of a distinctly French national tradition that went back all the way to Rameau in the 18th century and Lully in the 17th.  In symphonic and chamber music, there was no such continuity, and two composers, Franck and Saint-Saëns, were trying to raise these art forms to the same level of prestige that opera was enjoying.
    Saint-Saëns and Franck were very different personalities, though both were virtuoso organists, spending decades at the consoles of Parisian churches:  Saint-Saëns at La Madeleine, Franck at Sainte-Clotilde.  And both were inspired and supported by Franz Liszt, who was interested in everything younger composers were doing.  But Saint-Saëns was also a brilliant pianist, a gifted writer, a world traveler, and an incredibly prolific and versatile composer (he also wrote no fewer than 13 operas!).  Franck, his senior by 13 years, was not as vivacious, wrote less, worked more slowly and in fewer genres, hardly ever left Paris, and on the whole had less facility but probably more depth than did his famous colleague.  For many years, the two were locked in a bitter rivalry, exacerbated by their often very vocal followers and acolytes.
    In 1886, Saint-Saëns completed his Third Symphony (the so-called "Organ" Symphony), which was performed with great success in Paris the following year.  One of the most distinctive features of this work was the use of different variants of the same basic motif throughout the symphony.  This was a technique adopted from Liszt’s symphonic poems, though its roots are to be found in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth and in Schubert’s "Wanderer" Fantasy.  Franck recognized the merits of Saint-Saëns’s symphony, but, talking about the technique of motivic transformations, he noted wryly to one of his pupils:  "More than 40 years ago I did that very thing in my Trio in F sharp!"
    In any event, Franck decided to use that technique in a symphony this time, in part as a response to his rival.  He composed the work in 1887-88 and had it performed at the Paris Conservatory in February 1889, the same place where Saint-Saëns’s symphony had been given two years earlier.
    Franck’s symphony is in three movements instead of the usual four:  the middle movement combines elements of the traditional slow movement and scherzo.  Unlike Saint-Saëns, who based his symphony on the transformations of a single melody, Franck used several motifs, making for a more complex and less predictable scheme.  The first of these motifs, which opens the work, consists of three notes and alludes to two earlier compositions:  Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes, and Beethoven’s last string quartet (Op. 135), in which we hear almost exactly the same music, with the words Muss es sein? ("Must it be?") written by Beethoven under the notes.  The motif became a symbol of meditation and brooding in music (Wagner’s "fate"motif in the Ring is a close relative).  Franck used this motif to fashion the slow introduction of his symphony.  He then transformed it into the tempestuous main theme of the first movement’s fast section.  Even more unusual, he brought back the slow tempo and with it the original ‟brooding” form of the theme on two occasions during the movement.  Yet there is also time for a completely different melodic idea, a triumphant, hymnic tune that will also be transformed in the course of the symphony.
    The second movement (in B-flat minor) opens with some quiet harmonies for pizzicato (plucked) strings and harp that become the accompaniment for a beautiful melody featuring the English horn.  (Franck was rather rudely taken to task by one critic for using this instrument—a lower-pitched cousin of the oboe—which was not then a regular member of the orchestra.)  Several variations on this theme follow, some of which sound scherzo-like, reminiscent of the playful movement type most 19th-century symphonies include.
    The third movement (in D major) is happy and jubilant in tone; its exuberant first theme derives from the second theme of the opening movement.  Later, some darker memories from the first two movements are evoked at strategic junctures.  Shortly before the end, the sweet tune from the second movement becomes a weighty, dramatic statement with the full brass section and kettledrums.  Immediately afterwards, the "brooding" theme of the first movement appears as if in a dream.  It is soon shrugged off, however, by a confident affirmation of the jubilant main melody  that brings the symphony to a close.

Peter Laki

 

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