Maurice Ravel (b. Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France March 7, 1875; d. Paris, France December 28, 1937)
Le Tombeau de Couperin—1919 Maurice Ravel was staunchly patriotic, and when World War I broke out in Europe he tried his best to enlist in the military. Declared unfit for military service, he spent the war instead as a volunteer caregiver to the wounded. This experience, along with his deep grief at the loss of his mother, inspired him to compose a set of pieces for piano which he entitled Le Tombeau de Couperin, literally Couperin’s Tomb. “Tombeau” is a musical term for a composition written to commemorate the life of a great person. François Couperin was a 17th-century composer famous for establishing a distinctively French keyboard style. To Ravel, Couperin represented the French nation, and so this work was his musical salute to every fallen French man and woman – their ‘tomb.’ Each movement is dedicated to a close friend of his that had been killed in the war.
Ravel was a magnificent pianist, and the work is a display of pianistic skill. The initial performance of the piano work was delayed by a bombardment, however, and while he was waiting for the performance to be rescheduled, Ravel orchestrated four of the work’s six movements for 2 flutes, oboe, English Horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, harp, and strings. As talented as he was at performing, Ravel’s lasting reputation is based in good part on his extraordinary ability to create ravishing and distinctive combinations of orchestral sounds. The transformed work, an aural feast for orchestra, premiered in Paris in April 1919. With its repeated virtuosic demands on the oboe, it complements our program of concertos.
Couperin was known for his style of writing for the harpsichord, the favorite keyboard instrument of the Baroque era. In the running sixteenth notes of the opening Prélude, we hear Ravel mimicking the distinctive ornamentation Couperin used in his harpsichord music. At once elegant and exuberant, the movement is in a lively triple meter and is marked Vif. The melody is simple; but Ravel’s treatment reminds us of his mastery at manipulating sound color. Set in the oboe and echoed in the clarinets, it evokes the irrepressible bubbling of a particularly active stream. At times Ravel pairs muted or pizzicato strings with harp harmonics, creating a transparent, almost ethereal sound. The movement concludes with a surprising harp glissando that disappears into a sustained tremolo on flutes, oboes, and muted strings.
The second movement is based on the Italian dance called by the French the Forlane. To the dance’s characteristic dotted rhythms, ornamentation of certain notes, staccato articulation and offbeat accents, Ravel adds his own distinctive, more contemporary flare in both harmony and orchestration. The third movement, titled Minuet, has the stately rhythm of this popular court dance. Its first theme begins in the oboe and is accompanied by staccato figures in a wonderfully modal harmony. The secondary theme is scored with a cello drone, and the two themes are ingeniously combined to conclude the movement.
The final, spirited Rigaudon also has two contrasting sections set in the fast duple meter of this type of Provençal peasant dance. The animated first section is followed by a charmingly pastoral minor melody for the oboe accompanied by guitar-like pizzicati in the strings. The lively dance returns, bringing this tiny symphonic gem to a brightly festive conclusion.
Antonio Vivaldi (b. Venice, Italy March 4 1678; d. Vienna, Austria July 28 1741) Concerto No. 8 in A minor for Two Violins, RV. 52—1711 Vivaldi served as director of a conservatory for homeless girls in Venice during the early years of the eighteenth century, and wrote many of his works specifically to display the various talents of his students. Yet despite their modest origin, his compositions carried his name throughout Europe. This particular concerto is the eighth in Vivaldi’s first published set of concertos entitled L’Estro armonico – roughly, “The Genius of Harmony.” Issued in Amsterdam in 1711, this group of works completely changed contemporary understanding of what a concerto should be.
Each of the concertos in L’Estro armonico is a concerto grosso. In a concerto of this type, two or more solo violins are featured against the background of an orchestra of strings, including a harpsichord and cello playing the basso continuo that was so prevalent a feature of Baroque music.
The eighth concerto has a solo group of two violinists. The orchestral group, called the ripieno, begins the work with a powerfully propulsive opening theme. This theme returns throughout the movement in alternation with driving episodes for the two soloists, who sometimes play separately and sometimes in intricate imitation of one another. The middle movement is marked Larghetto e spirituoso and includes a march-like set of chord sequences from the ripieno over which we hear exquisitely lyrical passages for the two soloists. The final movement is fugal, featuring imitative entrances that sequence through the ripieno sections and alternate through the rest of the movement with ever-more astonishing displays of skill by the two solo violins. With this collection of concerti, Vivaldi established the model that composers of orchestral concerti would follow for the next 200 years.
Antonio Vivaldi Bassoon Concerto in E-flat RV. 483—before 1740 Vivaldi wrote over 400 concerti, including thirty-nine for bassoon. Before Vivaldi’s active use of this instrument as a concerto soloist, the bassoon was often regarded as inelegant. Many of the small solo passages written in previous works for the instrument, in fact, were meant to be comical. Vivaldi’s students must have had amazing facility on the instrument, for this composer took the instrument far more seriously than many of his contemporaries.
The string ripieno starts out this concerto’s opening Presto movement in a tone of irrepressible happiness, characterized musically by rushing scales and repeated-note figures in the opening tutti. We hear the same impetuous joy in the opening bassoon solo passages. The two outer movements of this work are showpieces of technical skill, requiring tremendous finger agility and a magnificently responsive reed. The inner Larghetto movement is in minor, and communicates a melancholy, mildly introspective mood that contrasts beautifully with the two outer movements’ ebullient air.
Antonio Vivaldi Trumpet Concerto in A-flat Major—before 1742 (derived from the Violin Sonata in F major, RV 20, by Antonio Vivaldi, arranged by Vicky Greenbaum.) French-born trumpeter Maurice André won the Geneva International competition in 1955, catalyzing an illustrious world-wide career as a trumpet virtuoso. He greatly expanded the repertoire of available solo works for trumpet by skillfully transcribing works written for other instruments into works for solo trumpet. An associate of André's originally arranged this concerto from three movements of Vivaldi’s Violin Sonata in F major, RV 20, the fourth sonata in Vivaldi’s Opus 2.
As we might expect from its violin origins, the work makes an extremely demanding showpiece for the modern trumpet. André follows Vivaldi’s pattern of a slow movement nestled between two outer, more technically virtuosic fast movements. Besides changing its key, André took poetic license with the original by inserting a short violin solo that he composed himself into the slow middle movement. The resulting composition is not pure Vivaldi, yet it has the all fluid grace and fiery elegance that one expects from a Vivaldi concerto. Today's chamber orchestra arrangement was prepared by Vicky Greenbaum for soloist James Dooley and Symphony Silicon Valley.
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, Germany December 16, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria March 26, 1827) Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, “Emperor,” Opus 73—1809 Beethoven’s early career centered around his astounding mastery as a pianist. His first four piano concertos, each more exquisite than the last, were written specifically to display these extraordinary gifts. Recognized as the most profoundly talented musician and composer of his time, when he wrote his fifth piano concerto Beethoven had only recently admitted to a choice few that his hearing was almost completely gone. Unsurprisingly, the Fifth is Beethoven’s final essay in the piano concerto genre, and the only one in which he did not perform the solo role at its premiere.
Beethoven began work on Concerto No. 5 during the fall of 1808 and completed the work around the end of the following year; its first performance was in Leipzig on November 28, 1811. In addition to the solo piano, the score—which was dedicated to Beethoven’s long-time friend and supporter, Archduke Rudolph—calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns and trumpets along with timpani and strings.
Much about this work was revolutionary. Where concertos by Vivaldi and many of his followers introduced the soloist with a long orchestral section, Beethoven prefaces the initial entrance of the soloist with a single orchestral chord. The soloist seemingly surveys his realm by playing a series of three cadenza-like arpeggios and broken scale passages — virtuosic displays that had heretofore been reserved for the concluding moments of a concerto movement. Each time the orchestra interrupts, eventually leading into its grand statement of the assertive first theme. Orchestra and pianist seem to converse; at one moment they trade majestic, almost militant proclamations, at the next we hear intensely intimate, tender exchanges between piano and various wind instruments. The movement’s overall impression is of exuberance tinged with militaristic grandeur.
This mix of emotions may reflect the conflicting events of Beethoven’s own life. Napoleon’s troops had begun their second siege of Vienna in May 1809, and the loud mortar explosions throughout that summer gave particular pain to the increasingly deaf Beethoven. He wrote in July 1809 “… since May 4th I have produced very little coherent work, at most a fragment here and there. The whole course of events has in my case affected both body and soul. …. What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me, nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery in every form.” And yet at the same time Beethoven’s fortunes were rising. In March 1809 three of his most generous aristocratic patrons pledged him their financial support for the rest of his life. Beethoven was free for the first time from financial cares, at least momentarily (war eventually worsened his situation). These contrasting experiences may help to illuminate the concerto’s shifts between militaristic pomp and quiet moments of hymn-like thanksgiving.
Another remarkable aspect of this concerto is that for the first time, Beethoven wrote out the cadenza—traditionally a free, improvised moment for the pianist to display his musicality and virtuosity—and included it as an integral part of the score. He even appended the note “Do not make a cadenza [i.e. do not improvise on your own], but attack the following immediately.”
The strongly assertive opening movement is followed by the second movement’s hushed mood of serene simplicity. The solo piano emerges from the extremes of the instrument’s registers to move almost reverently into an exquisite melody with the quality of a hymn. In this lyrically idyllic movement, the piano predominates in one of the most tender, intimate melodic statements Beethoven ever created. A rhythmic bridge passage sounds over a long, dominant pedal tone to bind seamlessly the second and third movements. In another shift, the final movement is a boisterous rondo with a jubilant, almost imperial spirit, and gives the soloist many passages of exceptional brilliance.
Although, as with so many of Beethoven’s works from this period, contemporaries considered the work to be too difficult, it was nonetheless greeted rapturously. Following its performance, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, Austria’s primary outlet for music criticism, reported that “ [the audience] could hardly content itself with ordinary expressions of recognition.” In the Piano Concerto No.5, Beethoven raised the stature of both soloist and orchestra within the concerto format to a level unknown before and rarely surpassed since. He did not give his work its famous nickname; but few terms could be better chosen to suggest the work’s stature.