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Simple Gifts

Aaron Copland (b. Brooklyn, New York November 14, 1900; d North Tarrytown, New York December 2 1990)

Appalachian Spring (1945)

A gifted composer, an innovative dancer, and a visionary patron of the arts brought this work to life. Copland's music had inspired dancer/choreographer Martha Graham since the early 1930's and the two often spoke of collaborating on a stage work. Philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge attended a Martha Graham dance performance for the first time in early 1942.  Her enthusiasm for what she saw that night translated into a commission for three new ballets from Graham, while composers Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, and Aaron Copland were
commissioned to write the scores.
 
Graham sent Copland an untitled script for the ballet, and he began work on it in June 1943. The premiere performance occurred on Coolidge's eightieth birthday on October 30, 1944.  The original synopsis of the action of the ballet provides valuable insight about the music:

The story concerns a pioneer celebration in the spring around a newly-built
farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century.  The
bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and
apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites.  An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience.  A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate.  At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.

Copland originally scored the work for a chamber ensemble of thirteen instruments to fit the small hall in the Library of Congress where the premiere took place.  His subsequent arrangement for full orchestra, the one we hear today, was introduced in 1945 by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with Artur Rodzinsky conducting.  The suite is a condensed version of the ballet, with only eight minutes of music cut and all the essential features of the story retained.  No less limber in its fuller orchestration than in its chamber scoring, this is superb music. No matter which version one hears, it glows with integrity. 

Copland was adamant that both Martha Graham's personality and her choreographic style influenced his conception of the music.  Graham had made it her mission to create an American style of dance, distinct in its character from inherited European traditions. and Copland responded with a score that reflected his own efforts to reach a broader public with a truly American style of composition.  That translated into beautiful but angular melodies based on widely spaced intervals that outlined simple, fundamental harmonies.  Syncopation and aternating time signatures create innovative rhythmic displacements that enliven the music. 

After a warm, inviting Introduction section, Copland vividly portrays the pioneer community, the young couple, their neighbors, and the festive happenings on that monumental day.  By far the most familiar element of the ballet's music is its quotation of the tune from the Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts, near the end of the work.  Its text conveys the Shaker view of life and eloquently captures the intended spirit of Appalachian Spring.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.

The theme is stated at first by the clarinet. Five variations follow, conveying scenes of daily activity in the life of the young couple; and the section is rounded out by a coda.

Appalachian Spring touched a patriotic chord with Americans from the moment it was first performed, during some of the darkest hours of World War II. The scenario highlighted ideals that were facing formidable challenges from abroad and that resonated deeply with the American public.  The work won Copland a Pulitzer prize, announced by coincidence in the same issue of the New York Times that proclaimed the end of World War II in Europe. Shortly thereafter the Music Critics' Circle of New York gave its coveted annual award to Appalachian Spring as the outstanding work in dramatic composition.  Rarely, if ever, has a modern composer been so prominently honored.  Just as the ballet was the capstone of Martha Graham's career as a choreographer, its score and the subsequent suite confirmed Copland as a leading figure in American music.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (b. Down Ampney, England October 12, 1872; d. London, England, August 26, 1958)

Tuba Concerto in F minor for bass tuba and orchestra (1954)

As the London Symphony Orchestra planned its Golden Jubilee concert, it asked Vaughan Williams if the eighty-two year old composer had a new work that might be programmed for the festive event.  He replied that he had a concerto for bass tuba, if they had a tubist who would be up to it.  Tubas were introduced to the orchestra relatively late, around 1830.  As late as 1954, repertoire for solo tuba was almost unheard of; a work for tuba solo and orchestra was even more extraordinary. At the Symphony's request, tubist Philip Catelinet traveled to Vaughn Williams' home to explore the concerto.  After working through the composition with Vaughan Williams, Catelinet accepted the challenge; and the first tuba concerto ever written premiered on June 13, 1954 in the Royal Festival Hall, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. 

Initial reviews were mixed.  Some called the work an "elephantine romp" and remarked that it was "humorous and salty."  History has shown this first reaction was far too superficial.  The technical difficulties of writing an effective concerto for an instrument whose compass lies even lower than that of the cello or the bassoon proved to be a stimulating challenge, and Vaughan Williams took great pains to discover the tuba's capabilities. The concerto's first and final
movements highlight the tuba's playful and deceptively agile capacity. With its solid melody surrounded by shimmering, playfully dancing strings, early critics insisted that the final movement was an instrumental representation of Falstaff and the Fairies. For the middle of the concerto, the composer fashioned a Romanza movement that is breathtakingly fresh and poignant, dramatizing the instrument's lyrical potential in the hands of a masterful player.

Vaughn Williams had a penchant for featuring instruments that are more typically cast in supporting roles.  Just as he favored the warm, rich tones of the viola in many of his works, he sought out the deep, intensely lyrical resonance and the quirky suppleness of the largest of brass instruments, exploiting all its best qualities in a ground-breaking concerto that inaugurated a legacy of tuba repertory.

Richard Strauss (b. Munich, Germany June 11, 1864; d. Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany September 8 1949)

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks) (1894-95)

Till Eulenspiegel is the hero of a popular tradition of German folk tales dating back to the Middle Ages that relate the consummate prankster's countless outrageous jests and practical jokes.  Always in trouble, unable to learn from the mistakes of his past, Till never conforms to convention, never heeds criticism, and in most of the folk tales miraculously never seems to pay in any substantive way for his merry misdoings.

As a folk hero, the character came to stand for the revenge of the peasantry upon the townsfolk in the social battle between town and country, and by extension the quintessential challenge to established order. When Richard Strauss chose to write a tone poem about this colorful figure late in 1894, he was also thumbing his nose at the musical establishment that had greeted his first opera, Guntram, with disdain at its premiere earlier that year. 

The first performance of Till Eulenspiegel took place in Cologne on November 5, 1895.  The overall form of the tone poem is a rondo.  Technically a rondo is a work with a single recurring theme, but Strauss complicated matters by using two themes.  The first is presented by the violins at the beginning of the work.  The second, a magnificent, almost maniacally difficult horn solo, is associated with the character of Till and serves to unite the various "pranks" throughout the work.  Strauss's choice of the horn for the melody representing the merry prankster may be linked with the fact that the composer's father was a particularly fun-loving horn player in the Munich Court Orchestra. 

After the two themes are introduced, they intermingle in constantly changing ways that demonstrate Strauss's mastery of the art of orchestration.  Scored for piccolo, three flutes, oboes, English horn, small clarinet in E-flat, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contra bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, kettledrums, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, a watchman's rattle, plus strings, the work is a virtuoso piece for the entire orchestra.
In the music, we hear Till playing pranks on peasants and preachers, courting a woman and meeting rejection, mocking academia.  In each adventure, Strauss ingeniously weaves the rondo themes into the texture of the music in various guises, and yet we can always locate Till in the forefront of the action.  In the end, Till is brought before judges represented by the brass family, and his life is briefly reviewed before they sentence him to death.  Till laughs gaily up to the very end, when two deep notes in the bassoon and brasses tell of his execution. The clarinet flutters, like a soul passing on to heaven.  But Strauss gives the eternally irreverent Till the last mocking word; a tiny epilogue ends the work with an amazing transformation of the original theme. 

Based their conclusion on an ancient gravestone in Lübeck, some have argued that Till Eulenspiegel was a real man. To all who know this work, it is not particularly important whether or not Till ever existed in the flesh.  Certainly he lives now, in this merry, naughty, diabolically ingenious music.

Richard Strauss
Der Rosenkavalier Suite (1945)

Judging by the universality of its appeal, the opera Der Rosenkavalier may approach artistic perfection more closely than any other of Richard Strauss' compositions. The music extracted and formed into a suite by Antal Dorati condenses the opera's essential warmth and humor, nostalgia and charm into an orchestral work that is a gratifying musical experience on its own. Yet an acquaintance with the opera's somewhat wacky plot only multiplies that enjoyment.

Der Rosenkavalier is a sunny, lightly poignant romantic comedy set to animated, winning music.  It is essentially a series of "flashbacks" in the career of the lovely Marschallin von Werdenberg, a beauty in the court of Maria Theresa who is facing the onset of middle age with a calm and mellow nostalgia.  A young man named Octavian falls deeply in love with her and the Marschallin temperately returns his affections. 

A very different character is the Baron Ochs, an aging rake who seeks to become engaged to a beautiful, much younger woman named Sophie Faninal.  Baron Ochs, a friend of the Marschallin, arrives unannounced at her door one day, catching her in a compromising position with Octavian.  The quick-witted Octavian hurriedly disguises himself as a maidservant and is so convincing that the Baron, with his eye for a pretty face, suggests a rendezvous.  Octavian consents.  The Baron leaves a silver rose with the Marschallin, so that, according to custom, she can present it and his intentions to Sophie.  The Marschallin asks Octavian to carry out this errand, couched in a formal and handsome ceremony. 

Octavian does so; but predictably enough, he and Sophie fall in love at first sight.  Baron Ochs discovers Octavian and Sophie in a loving embrace and there is a duel between the young lover and the old.  Sophie's parents are adamant that she marry the rich Baron, so Octavian arranges a series of comic scenes to discredit him. Sophie's father finally informs the Baron that Sophie is going to marry Octavian with his blessing.  The Marschallin tenderly gives her young lover to Sophie, and withdraws from the scene with gentle dignity.

The Der Rosenkavalier suite distills the opera to its essentials, observing the dramatic sequence of the music while preserving the indescribable charm, gaiety, and occasional pathos of the wonderful original.       
Program notes by Dr. Beth Fleming

 

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