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The Organ & the Great C

Samuel Barber (b. West Chester, Pennsylvania, March 9 1910; d. New York, New York, January 23, 1981)

Adagio for Strings—1936

    Typically there are as many different reactions to a piece of music as there are listeners.  Science firmly backs this statement. Yet in America, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings has become universally associated with the concept of mourning. The funeral of Franklin Delano Roosevelt included a performance, as did the funeral of John F. Kennedy.  The piece has been used in countless war movies to underscore scenes of carnage (e.g. Patton). It was played at the memorial services for the victims of the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing and of the tragedy of 9/11. What is it about the Adagio that makes so many people respond to it as a supremely eloquent epitaph for those they lose?
    When Samuel Barber created this piece of transformative music, he had no idea that it would help his nation mourn for years to come. Initially it was the center slow movement in his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11, written in 1936. Two years later, at the suggestion of Arturo Toscanini, the composer orchestrated it for the NBC Symphony Orchestra.  Since then the orchestral version has been performed far more often than the original string quartet version.  Adagio for Strings has been arranged for many different groupings of instruments, in one choral version with no words, and in another set to the text "Alleluia."  It is one of the most popular pieces of American music both in the United States and worldwide, even holding the distinction of regular performances in the Soviet Union during the cold war.  
    Many pieces of music are composed of intricately interwoven layers structured around the experience of tension and release.  Adagio for Strings is a single rhapsodic ascending phrase of music that is repeated and inverted (played backwards), expanded and embellished as it rises higher and becomes louder. Two-thirds of the way through the work, the music reaches a pinnacle of tension and then, after a moment of eloquent silence, gracefully relaxes back to its point of harmonic origin.  What contributes to the build-up of tension is Barber's choice of innovative chromatic harmonies to support each repetition of the melody.  As the rapturous melody reaches ever higher, it is enfolded in unresolved harmonies that do not relax into consonance until after that blissful moment of silence.
    Samuel Barber was twenty-six years old when he wrote this piece as a movement in his first string quartet.  Its popularity, particularly in the orchestral arrangement, continually astounded him.  He viewed it not as a work to inspire mourning, but as one that illustrates the redemptive powers of inward reflection -- an intimate meditation rather than a lament. Whatever it is that brings worldwide audiences to this work again and again, Adagio for Strings is an expressively personal statement presented in dignified simplicity.

Felix Alexandre Guilmant (b. Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, March 12, 1837; d. Meudon, France, March 29, 1911)

Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra in D minor, op. 42—1878

    Felix Alexandre Guilmant was born in northern France in the small town of Boulogne-sur-Mer near Calais.  His father, a church organist, taught Alexandre to play and he went on to study at the famed Conservatory in Brussels. Although other great French organist-composers like Franck and Widor may now be better known, Guilmant become one of the most famous organists of his day; one critic calls him a "nineteenth century 'pop star'."
    Guilmant was friendly with the brilliant nineteenth century French organ maker, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, a leader in the technical evolution of the instrument. Largely through Cavaillé-Coll's innovations, the organ developed far greater power, a warmer, more expressive tone, and a vastly increased range of timbres – essentially the organ we know today. César Franck reportedly commented about an early example, "My new organ?  It's an orchestra!"
    One result was a revival of intense interest in the organ, as composers made the most of the new sound in show-stopping works written on a truly symphonic scale.  Many were composed as stand-alone pieces intended to present the many-voiced organ as comparable to a full orchestra. Guilmant, however, insisted on the distinctive qualities of the two.  He is especially known for his eight virtuosic organ sonatas.  Today we hear the first of these, as rearranged by the composer for organ and orchestra; and the arrangement takes full advantage of their contrasting colors.
    Guilmant's Symphony No. 1 was first performed on August 22, 1878 in the Palais du Trocadéro, with Guilmant at the organ.  The musical substance of the original sonata is virtually intact. The composer simply added orchestration to enhance the organ part, highlighting the already symphonic proportions of the sound he could draw from his trademark Cavaillé-Coll instrument.
    In the Symphony's first movement, the orchestra as a unit is pitted against the mighty organ.  The main theme of the movement begins in an extended pedal solo for the organ.  Following the lyrical second theme, development, and reprise, the voices of the orchestra and the voicings of the organ pipes imitate and argue with each other, until finally all voices join together in a commanding common statement.
    Pastoral and atmospheric, the hypnotic 12/8 rhythm of the second movement begins in the flute pipes of the organ with a flowing melody in the form of a fugue.  (Guilmant published much early organ music, including the organ works of J.S. Bach and his sons.) Gradually the swell-box trumpet pipes are added.  In time, the voix celeste (celestial voice) register of the organ is joined by a counterpoint from the muted first violin section, and the movement ends in a mood of elevated, lyrical joyfulness.
    The final movement is a virtuosic display of overpowering intensity.  The French toccata style takes over, and we hear a dazzling chain of sixteenth-notes.  This show of power is only interrupted once, for a very brief chorus-like second theme.  After the second theme is presented, the sixteenth-note perpetual motion machine drives toward a shimmering conclusion, replete with resonant fanfares by the brass, and the first appearance of the cymbal and bass drum for emphasis.
    Symphony No. 1 in D minor, op. 42 is dedicated to "His Royal Highness King Leopold II, King of Belgium." The final glorious cacophony of sound is a fitting tribute to a king, presented by orchestra and the king of Instruments.

    Note: The Guilmant Organ Symphony was selected to highlight the unique qualities of the California Wurlitzer theater organ.  Guilman was a leader in the use of orchestral organs, as distinct from church organs - earlier versions of the theater organ concept.

Franz Schubert (b. Vienna, Austria, January 31, 1797; d. Vienna, Austria, November 19, 1828)

Symphony No. 9 in C Major ("The Great"), D. 944—1825-1828

I.     Andante; Allegro ma non troppo
II.    Andante con moto
III.   Scherzo: Allegro vivace
IV.   Finale: Allegro vivace

     Schubert's Symphony No.9 begins with a noble, reflective theme that reappears throughout the first movement. Well after Schubert's death, the theme's grandeur and sense of space, together with the sheer length of the Symphony, helped to earn it the nickname the "Great C Major. " In fact, the nickname was first applied by a music publisher to distinguish the work from Schubert's shorter and less ambitious 6th Symphony, the "Little C Major." But the name aptly describes both Schubert's evident intent in writing the work, and the stature of the final composition.
     Schubert profoundly revered Beethoven. He may have paid the older composer a single visit, but generally he kept a humble distance, content with attending Beethoven's concerts – including most probably the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth "Choral" Symphony in 1824.  He served as one of Beethoven's pallbearers at the great man's funeral.  Perhaps his greatest tribute to Beethoven was his resolve to write a grand symphony with the breadth and profundity of his predecessor's; and his Symphony No. 9 was the result.
    Through the years, the numbering on Schubert's symphonies has repeatedly shifted because of discrepancies between Schubert's notations on his scores and the evidence from research into printing practices and paper production during his lifetime.  Many early scholars believed that this Symphony was the last work Schubert worked on before his death at 31 from syphilis.  One copy of the work, indeed, is dated "March 1828" in the composer's handwriting, which would place it only a few months before Schubert was laid to rest.  The new technologies used to date paper and ink, however, have helped to prove that work on this symphony began as far back as 1825, and that it was completed sometime in 1826.  
    Despite this earlier date, it is almost certain that Schubert never heard his masterpiece. He sent it off to the Vienna Philharmonic, which played it through; but the musicians declared it unsuitable to perform in public. It was not until 1839 that Robert Schumann, composer and chronicler of important nineteenth-century musical events, heard the Symphony's first public performance in Leipzig, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting.  He wrote:

Here we have, besides masterly power over the musical technicalities of composition, life in all its phases, color in exquisite gradations, the minutest accuracy and fitness of expression and, permeating the whole work, a spirit of romance …And this heavenly, long-drawn-out symphony is like some thick romance…in four volumes, which can never end—and indeed, for the very best of reasons, in order that it may draw along the reader with it up to the last moment.

   This epic 'romance-novel' of a symphony almost never made it into public concert halls.  After Schubert's death, his older brother Ferdinand assumed possession of all his brother's belongings.  Eventually Ferdinand showed the manuscript of Symphony No. 9 to Schumann, who became a champion for the unknown work.  Again, orchestras in Vienna and Paris claimed the work was too long and unwieldy even to tackle in rehearsal.  Schumann therefore took it to his friend Mendelssohn, who was the conductor of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and Mendelssohn agreed to perform the work with his own orchestra. When, however, he attempted to perform it in London in 1844, despite extensive cuts the musicians refused. Today its length and the physical as well as musical hurdles it poses for musicians are no longer novel; but it remains immensely challenging in performance.
    Schubert was particularly gifted at writing beautiful lines for the French horn, and it is the French horn's majestic motive from the slow introduction that becomes the recurring theme of the first movement. The movement's Allegro portion pulses and throbs with sheet rhythmic vitality, driving the music toward a riveting conclusion. In the powerful Coda, the full orchestra returns to the opening motive once again.
    The second movement is intimate and deeply lyrical, and includes an intensely longing, plaintive melody for solo oboe.  Once again this exquisite movement features magical writing for the French horn section. Eventually, the quiet mood is broken by an abrupt eruption of violently dissonant emotion.
    The hearty Scherzo movement glances unmistakably back to the corresponding movement in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Beethoven first introduced the 'Scherzo and Trio,' and this movement, with its several themes and variations on form, closely mimics the earlier composer's work. In the movement's middle trio, the woodwinds play a waltz-like folk dance rhythm; and the Scherzo is filled with lyrical dance melodies.
    Following an energetic introduction by the brass, churning, tumbling, triumphant triplet figures give the Finale an urgent, relentless momentum.  In the movement's second theme we hear an unmistakable reminder of the main theme of the last, choral movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony – perhaps another hint of tribute paid by one great composer to another. Just as Schumann observed, this high-spirited movement enthralls its listeners, drawing them along to the last joyous note.                
                                                                                 Program notes by Dr. Beth Fleming

 

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