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Symphony Silicon Valley Chamber Music (Non-Subscription Concert)

Program Notes

Dr. Beth Fleming

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Igor Stravinsky (b. Orianenbaum, Russia June 17, 1882; d. New
    York, New York April 6, 1971)
  • Octet for Winds—1923
Stravinsky was already a well-known composer in 1923, famous, perhaps even infamous, for his three magnificent collaborations with the Ballet Russe in Paris in the early 1900s.  The onset of World War I radically changed the music scene in Paris and Stravinsky's works from this time reflect that change. Scored for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets in A and C, and tenor and bass trombones, this Octet represents an entirely new, neoclassical direction in Stravinsky's composition. 

Although many attribute the choice of so few instruments to the tragic aftermath of the war, necessitating economical scoring, economy did not require this particular choice of instrumentation.  He could just as easily have chosen to write for eight strings.  Stravinsky was striving for extreme clarity of timbre and texture.  He felt that the sound of eight string instruments would make the overall sound more blended, and amorphous blend is exactly what he was trying to avoid.  He wanted to move away from the emotional excesses in Romantic music.  Choosing extremely unusual instrumentation and confining himself to classical forms helped him distance the work from emotionalism. 

The first movement is in sonata form with a slow introduction, while the second movement is a theme with variations and the third is in a classic rondo scheme.  The innovations in this work come not only from its eclectic instrumentation but from Stravinsky's use of octatonic scales, particularly in the second movement, and harmonies that shift seamlessly from one tonal center to another throughout the work.  He gives further acknowledgement to music of bygone eras by ingeniously incorporating fragments of the Dies irae chant into the second movement before the first, third and fifth variations.  Like many variation works of the past, Stravinsky changed mood and character in quick succession.  The second variation is martial sounding, the third is a waltz, the fourth a can-can and the final variation is a magnificent, majestic fugue.
The work was dedicated secretly to Vera Soudeikine (née de Bosset), whom Stravinsky had met in 1920, and with whom he had fallen in love.  She was eventually to become his second wife.

Richard Strauss (b. Munich, Germany June 11, 1864; d. Garmisch-
    Partenkirchen, Germany September 8 1949)
  • Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Chamber version)
Till Eulenspiegel is the consummate prankster, always in trouble and never quite able to learn from the mistakes of his past, never conforming to convention and never heeding any kind of criticism.  This well-known German folktale hero/clown originated in the fourteenth century and has long represented the ultimate challenge to established order.  When Richard Strauss chose to write a tone poem about this colorful character between 1894 and 1895, he was also thumbing his nose at the musical establishment critics who had treated his first opera, Guntram, with great disdain at its premiere. 

The overall form of the tone poem is a rondo.  Since a rondo is a work with a recurring theme, Strauss united the various "pranks" of the work by associating the character of Till with the recurring theme, which is a magnificent, almost maniacally difficult horn solo.  In the course of his mischief, Till encounters peasants and preachers, goes courting and is rejected, and makes fun of intelligentia.  In each of these adventures Strauss ingeniously weaves the rondo theme into the texture of the music in various guises; one can always tell that Till is in the forefront of the action.  In the end, Till is brought before judges and his life is briefly reviewed before he is sentenced to death.  A final mocking gesture ends the work in an amazing transformation of the original theme. 

The orchestral version of Til Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks includes some of Strauss's most brilliant orchestration, giving the work an appealing color and also making it a virtuoso piece for orchestra.  In this chamber version one hears that same virtuosity taken up another notch, resulting in a work of crystalline clarity with a certain Tillish elegance.

Arnold Bax (b. Streatham, England November 8, 1883; d. Cork,
    Ireland October 3, 1953)
  • Quintet for Oboe and Strings
While Stravinsky sought to move away from Romanticism with his Octet and the works that followed, his contemporary, Arnold Bax, claimed to be a "brazen romantic;" some call him the last of the European post-Romantic school of composers.  His music is exotic, chromatic and opulent, with expansive, lyrical melodies and resplendent harmonies inspired by Celtic folksong. 

Bax lived in the shadow of composers such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams and received little public recognition. Sir Adrian Boult, conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, championed Bax's symphonic works; but his songs, choral works, and chamber music were rarely heard. Only now, in the early years of the 21st century, are audiences coming to appreciate these works of great beauty and enduring quality.

The Quintet for Oboe and Strings was composed between November 1 and December 25, 1922, just after Bax wrote his First Symphony.  The combination of oboe and string quartet was highly unusual; but Bax dedicated this work to Louis Goossens, a famous oboe virtuoso, so perhaps the inspiration for the work was the exquisite playing of this unique instrumentalist.  The quintet has three movements in the typical fast-slow-fast pattern of a concerto. Virtuoso oboe writing permeates the work, but the melancholy, tearful quality of the oboe's distinctive sound is particularly highlighted during the central lament.  Equally interesting writing for the strings features a great variety of coloristic effects, including sul ponticello (bowing the strings as close as possible to the bridge) and pizzicato (plucking the strings).

Lively jig rhythms and rapturous melodies reminiscent of Irish folk music dominate the final movement. Bax had an emotional attachment to Ireland that began with an interest in the poetry of Shelley and evolved to become the central emotional component of his life.  The influence of Irish folksong can be heard throughout the Quintet.

Antonin Dvorák (b. Nelahozeves, Bohemia, September 8, 1841; d.
    Prague, Czechoslovakia May 1, 1904)
  • Piano Quintet in A major B. 155 Opus 81—1887
Dvorák was always dissatisfied with his early 1870's attempt at a Piano Quintet, published as Opus 5.  Fifteen years later he decided to revise it for republication.  Soon he cast the old attempt completely aside and began composing a brand new piano quintet in the same key.  Dvorák and audiences alike agree that Opus 81 is a complete success; some even consider it a central masterwork of Romantic-era chamber music, along with the Piano Quintets of Schumann and Brahms. Written between August and early October of 1887, Dvorák's contribution elegantly combines Eastern European folk flavor with lyrical melodicism. Its depth and warmth is reminiscent of the best works of Brahms, the composer against which much of the later Romantic era composers were measured.

By 1887 Dvorák had achieved great acclaim for his distinctively nationalistic music, and the Piano Quintet, Opus 81 is an excellent example of his devotion to Bohemian folk idioms.  It follows classical tradition in several respects: it has four movements, the first of which is in conventional sonata form, while the fourth is a rondo. The second, typically slow, movement, however, reflects Dvorák's Eastern European nationalistic flair; it is a dumka -- a Ukrainian lament or ballad containing several sections of radically contrasting moods. Similarly, the third movement is subtitled "Furiant," a type of Bohemian folk dance.   Audiences at the Prague premiere of this work on January 6 in 1888 found the accustomed classical forms distinctively spiced with the exotic flavors of Bohemian nationalism as interpreted by a master.



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