|MASTERWORKS VI: Creative Expressions|
Overture in C major
The eldest of the Mendelssohn children, Fanny Mendelssohn was probably just as gifted as her brother Felix, becoming an accomplished pianist and prolific composer, with more than 450 works to her name. But in nineteenth century Europe, in an upper middle class family peppered with philosophers and thinkers, women did not become professional artists. "Music will perhaps become his [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament," wrote Fanny’s father, a wealthy banker. The siblings’ music teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, once praised her pianism: “She plays like a man.”
By contrast, her husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, was more supportive, and even illustrated some of her works. He also supported her to maintain a flourishing musical Salon in their home, for which she composed, played the piano and conducted. Her only known public appearance was in 1838, when she performed her brother’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at a charity benefit.
Some of Fanny’s compositions were initially – and erroneously ¬– attributed to her brother, who also published some of her songs under his name. In general, he was supportive of her musical efforts, but was also constrained by the mores of the time. The siblings were very close, and part of the attribution problem may result from the fact that they critiqued and made suggestions for each other’s compositions. There is definitely a family resemblance between their works.
The bulk of of Fanny’s compositions are songs and short piano pieces. The Overture in C, composed around 1830, is her only known orchestrated work. It is a rather modest piece in conventional sonata-allegro form preceded by a particularly long, slow introduction. The Allegro is an energetic fanfare-like theme, each pitch in rapid repeated notes. There is, of course a more lyrical second theme. One of Felix’s youthful signatures is this kind of almost febrile excitement, but whether he was influenced by the older Fanny, or the other way around is not clear.
D’un matin de printemps (Spring Noon)
The younger sister of famed teacher, conductor and composer Nadia Boulanger, Lili (Marie-Juliette Olga) Boulanger was one of the most innovative composers of the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, a chronic illness cut her career short at age 25.
Boulanger was the first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome at age nineteen. Her songs and choral works, especially her three Psalm settings and Pie Jesu were widely admired and performed.
Boulanger composed D’un matin de printemps in 1917-18, first for violin and piano, and then for orchestra. It was the last composition she completed, composed when she was near death. Its cheerful, lively mood contrasts with her grim personal situation.
If we describe Ravel and Debussy as “impressionists,” Boulanger can be regarded as “post-impressionist.” While still tonal, D’un matin de printemps incorporates the modal qualities of her French contemporaries, including a hint of chinoiserie.
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7
Clara Schumann, née Wieck, was a child prodigy, whose father, Friedrich Wieck (1785-1873), promoted and directed her early career with an iron hand. Clara made her public debut as a piano soloist at age eleven with the Leipziger Gewandhaus Orchestra, going on to become one of the greatest pianists of the nineteenth century. Her intensely serious approach to the music she performed, transformed – almost single-handedly – the solo piano recital from a showplace for the performer to one for the composer.
She was also an able composer, but in the nineteenth century Germany was distinctly unreceptive to any such ambitions in a woman, a fact she herself realized quite early. She noted in her diary: “A woman must not desire to compose – none has been able to do it, and why should I expect to? It would be arrogance...” Nevertheless she left behind a number of compositions, most of them for piano solo and for voice and piano.
When Clara finally broke with her father to marry Robert Schumann (her father's student), the marriage turned out to be as rough as the highs and lows of Robert’s bi-polar disease. Although the couple was devoted to each other, sharing musical and literary tastes, Clara continued to perform in public between and during her eight pregnancies as the chief breadwinner of the family and the more famous of the pair. The late-blooming, emotionally unstable Robert adored Clara, immortalizing her in musical code in many of his compositions; yet, he frequently skulked at the edge of her limelight. Their marriage lasted a mere 16 years, the last two of which Robert spent in an insane asylum where he died in 1856. Clara tirelessly promoted and played his music both before and after his death.
Clara Wieck composed the Piano Concerto in a minor between 1833 and 1835 under the tutelage of her father and Robert. It was a happier time for all concerned; Clara was only 13, and the romance with Robert that was to entail such bitterness was still in the future. It is Clara’s only completed orchestral work that has survived. The third movement, orchestrated by Robert, was composed first and performed several times in public under the title Concertsatz. Clara went on to compose the two other movements and orchestrate them herself, premiering the completed work in November 1835 in the Leipziger Gewandhaus with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. She revised the Concerto before publication in 1837.
Clara's Concerto is a significant piece, both in terms of length and depth. It certainly belongs to the world of her teacher's Romanticism; many of the themes have Robert's fingerprints all over them. The 1837 revision we have today is probably a far cry from the composer's adolescent attempt.
The three movements of the Concerto are played without a pause. The first movement is in an unusual variant of sonata allegro form, in which there are three themes, each one developed immediately after its introduction, so that there is no formal development section. The Concerto begins with a majestic theme in the orchestra, taken up quickly by the piano. The second theme, introduced by the piano, acts as a modulating transition into the final theme. & There is a short reprise of the opening theme and a transition based on it that leads directly into the second movement. The tender Romanza, belongs exclusively to the piano and solo cello, which takes up the theme after it has been introduced and developed by the piano. The Finale, almost as long as the other two movements put together, has a polonaise as the rondo theme. Although Clara may not have been familiar with Chopin's piano concertos, the pianistic style in her own work indicates that she was familiar, at least with his solo piano music.
Suita Rustica, Op. 19
Czech composer and conductor Vítězslava Kaprálová came from a musical family. Her father was a composer, and her mother a voice teacher. She studied at the conservatories in Brno and Prague, and in 1937 moved to Paris to study with composer Bohuslav Martinu and conductor Charles Munch. She died suddenly in 1940, possibly from typhoid fever. She first achieved international recognition in 1937 with her Military Sinfonietta and her orchestral songs.
Kaprálová composed the Suita rustica in 1938 at the request of Universal Editions. In general, her style recalls the nineteenth-century Romantic versions of Czech folksongs and dances heard in the urban cafes of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, including one of the dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. Listeners familiar with the central European Dances of Bela Bartók, will recognize the modal qualities of some of the melodies, but Kaprálová clearly did not have Bartók’s ethnomusicological artistic goals. The first half of the Suite is a medley, but in the second half she blends fragments of the tunes into a free-form fantasy.
Concerto 4-3 for two Violins, Double Bass and Orchestra
Jennifer Higdon is among the fortunate contemporary composers whose music receives frequent performances to enthusiastic audiences. Audiences and performers alike take to it, and she is swamped with commissions.
It didn’t used to be like that for contemporary composers of the late twentieth century. During the 1970s and ‘80s when Higdon was a composition student at the University of Pennsylvania, the field of contemporary music was dominated by composer/academicians who espoused serialism and/or strict atonality. Their students espoused it too – or rebelled. But if the rebels became academic outcasts, there were audiences out there waiting for them and their more accessible, expressive – even tonal – music. Fortunately for these audiences, a new generation of composers, including Higdon, recognized that orchestras, chamber ensembles, choruses, opera companies and their audiences are the juries of the real world – and they have voted with their pocketbooks.
Growing up, Higdon was exposed to a wide range of musical styles, with a particular fondness for the Beatles. Her music, she says, “…is probably an amalgamation of all the music I ever heard.” When asked whether she decides on a style before she starts, she responded, “I guess I’m too close [to my work]. I never, never, never analyze while I am composing.”
Higdon composed Concerto 4-3 in 2007 on commission from the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Wheeling symphony orchestras. The title refers to the string trio Time for Three, for which she wrote the piece, but she might have easily called it “A Fiddling Concerto.” Many of the musical, rhythmic and technical features recall bluegrass, one of the musical traditions she grew up with in Eastern Tennessee. The three movements draw their titles from the rivers that run through the Smoky Mountains.
“The Shallows” combines bluegrass fiddling with “…techniques that mimic everything from squeaking mice to electric guitars…that resemble parts of the mountain rivers that move in shallow areas, where small rocks and pebbles make for a rapid ride that moves a rafter quickly from one side of the river to the other.” Higdon’s syncopation against the fiddling ostinato paints in music the random movement of the pebbles. While there are no lyrical themes in this movement, snatches of local color appear throughout.
The second movement, “Little River,” “reflects the beauty of Little River as it flows through Townsend and Walland, Tennessee.” It opens with a meandering bass solo featuring a melodic fragment and ornamental glisses characteristic of Appalachian string playing. Higdon follows with a more “classical” passage, recalling Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, both inspired by rural America. The movement contains two orchestral climaxes, but belongs primarily to the musings of the trio of soloists.
The third movement, “Roaring Smokies,” “is a rapid-fire virtuosic movement that shifts and moves very much like a raging river (those wild mountain waters that pour out of the mountains).” It sneaks up on you, like a small stream (see Smetana’s Vltava), emerging into another burst of virtuosic fiddling. But Higdon’s classical training is also on display as the three instruments enter in canon. Through the melee, a slow, lonely melody continually tries to be heard but never quite finishes.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018|