A Musical Promenade
A Musical Promenade
Saturday, October 22, 2016
Rimsky-Korsakov Procession of the Nobles
Coleridge-Taylor Africa Suite: Danse Nègre
de Falla Danza ritual del fuego
Bernstein Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition
The Georgia Symphony Orchestra opens the 2016-2017 Master Works season with new Music Director Timothy Verville in a celebration of festive music and visual art! Music moves us as we process to music of Rimsky-Korsakov, dance to music of Coleridge-Taylor, de Falla and Bernstein, and promenade through Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
As one of “The Mighty Five,” a group of Russian nationalist composers, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) composed orchestral masterpieces based on folk materials, among them the Capriccio Espagnol, based on Spanish melodies, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, based on the Russian Orthodox liturgy, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade, based on the story “One Thousand and One Nights,” also called “The Arabian Nights.” For his opera Mlada (1889-90), a Russian myth inspired a spectacle of singing, dancing and scenery in a tale of nobles, gods, goddesses, and the supernatural, even involving, like Wagner in his “Ring” operas, the symbolic use of a ring. The second act begins with the “Procession of the Nobles,” a march in, uncommonly, a 3/4 meter, a series of hearty fanfares separated by brief passages of a lighter nature.
Composers in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries were greatly encouraged in their efforts by visits from composers such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), a well-known Afro-British composer. His Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, influenced by “The Song of Hiawatha” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was one of England’s most popular choral works, along with Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Handel’s Messiah. In 1896, Coleridge-Taylor, then a student at the Royal College of Music, met African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) while the poet was on a reading tour of England. Profoundly influenced by Dunbar, the composer thereafter explored “African” themes in his music. “Danse Nègre,” inspired by Dunbar’s writing, is the final movement of Coleridge-Taylor’s African Suite (1898), its primary tune a lilting melody, first played by the flute, reminiscent of traditional African-American folk songs.
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was a Spanish composer who thoroughly integrated the flavors of his country’s music with contemporary orchestration. Such was Falla’s perfectionism, though, that he left only few major works, one of them the “ballet pantomime,” El amor brujo (Love, the Magician) of 1915. Though not initially successful as a showpiece for Pastora Imperio, a then-popular singer and dancer, Falla’s work has found greater appreciation in the concert hall as an orchestral suite. In El amor brujo, Candela, a widowed gypsy, persuades a friend to flirt with the ghost of her late husband, this in order to free her of his jealousy and unwanted attentions. In the “Ritual Fire Dance” (“Danza ritual del fuego”), a short, energetic showpiece featuring fast trills, melodic ornamentation, and lively rhythms, Candela dances around the campfire at night in an attempt to ward off her husband’s evil spirit.
The popularity of Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) with choreography by Jerome Robbins, was so successful with wartime audiences that they used its “leftovers” as the basis for On the Town, which opened on Broadway as a musical / operetta the same year. Both shows portray the exploits of sailors on leave in New York and feature primarily dance routines. The 1949 film version of On the Town starred Gene Kelly. In 1946, Bernstein arranged three extracts from On the Town for orchestra in a suite called “Three Dance Episodes,” these representing, in his own words, “the essence” of the first Broadway show to have “seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts.” Of “The Great Lover,” its opening reminiscent of West Side Story, Bernstein writes: “Gaby, the romantic sailor in search of the glamorous Miss Turnstiles, falls asleep in the subway and dreams of his prowess in sweeping Miss Turnstiles off her feet.” The subdued second movement, “Lonely Town (Pas de deux),” paints a romantic but darker picture: “Gaby watches a scene, both tender and sinister, in which a sensitive high-school girl in Central Park is lured and then cast off by a worldly sailor.” The finale, “Times Square: 1944,” is a fantastic riff on the show’s best-known melody, “New York, New York,” “a more panoramic sequence in which all the sailors in New York congregate in Times Square for their night of fun. There is communal dancing, a scene in a souvenir arcade, and a scene in the Roseland Dance Palace.”
Born of well-to-do landowners, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was headed for a career in the military until he met Mily Balakirev. Balakirev dreamed of founding a school of Russian nationalist composers, whose music would be based on Russian folk music and culture. Together with Mussorgsky, César Cui, Aleksandr Borodin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, he formed “The Mighty Five,” composers who wrote music with no need of outside influences to feed their Russian souls. Mussorgsky had some success with his music, but, personally and professionally disorganized, he left projects unfinished and could not lift himself out of poverty and alcoholism. Upon his death, the preservation, editing and completion of his works became totally dependent upon others. Thus, as annotator Aaron Grad writes, we hear his music “through the prism of another composer,” in Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of his Night on Bald Mountain, for example, or Ravel’s orchestration of his Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky was best known for his opera Boris Godunov (1873), a Russian historical-political saga based on a drama by Pushkin, the only major work he ever completed.
Shortly after the death of Viktor Hartman (1834-1873), a prominent Russian architect and painter, Mussorgsky viewed an exhibition of his friend’s water colors and drawings, then memorialized him by setting ten of them to music for piano, a work completed in 1874. In 1922, conductor Serge Koussevitsky suggested that French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) orchestrate the suite. Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition , has been an audience favorite since its premiere in Paris in 1922. While staying true to the notes of a piano score already heavily edited by Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel freely added and changed dynamics and attack markings, and provided precise instrumentation, such that his version of Pictures at an Exhibition, so brilliant and original, and now so familiar, is accepted as the definitive realization of Mussorgsky’s work.
Our viewing of Hartman’s artwork begins with a “Promenade” theme in the brass, suggestive of spectators moving around the gallery, with the theme’s various versions and moods serving as links between selections. Music for the first painting, “Gnomus,” captures the capricious and sinister character of a nutcracker designed by Hartman, a Christmas toy in the shape of an evil gnome. A more delicate promenade leads to the second painting, “Il Vecchio castello” (“The Old Castle”), a watercolor of a troubadour performing in front of a medieval Italian castle. Its wistful spirit is evoked by a plaintive melody first heard on the alto saxophone. A short but purposeful promenade takes us to “Tuileries,” a watercolor of the famed Parisian gardens, subtitled “Children at Play,” with the calls and taunts of youngsters mimicked by clarinets. The next image, “Bydlo” (“cattle” in Polish), is a drawing of oxen pulling a heavy cart with wooden wheels, its lumbering movement realized as a ponderous tune in the tuba. Another promenade brings us to the whimsical “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” Hartman’s costume design for an 1870 children’s ballet which depicted canaries dancing with only their legs sticking out of their shells. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” represents drawings of “Two Polish Jews – One Rich, the Other Poor.” Goldenberg is characterized by a rather pompous melody in the low strings, Schmuyle by a high-pitched wheedling melody on the trumpet. Hartman drew these figures from life, and Mussorgsky so liked the drawing that Hartman presented it to him. The lively “Limoges: The Market” depicts a group of old women, bags and baskets in hand, thoroughly enjoying themselves at a bustling French market. “Catacombs,” with its somber harmonies played in low registers, is a self-portrait of Hartman as he explores the Roman catacombs beneath the streets of Paris with architect Vasiliy Kenel and a guide with a lantern. The “Promenade” theme re-appears in “Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua,” labeled “with the dead in a dead language.” Of this movement, Mussorgsky wrote, “Hartman’s creative spirit leads me to the place of skulls and calls to them – the skulls begin to glow faintly from within.” “For “The Little Hut on Chicken’s Legs,” Hartman designed a clock face representing the witch Baba Yaga riding on a broomstick. In the Russian fairy tale, Baba Yaga lives on the edge of a forest in a cottage supported by the legs of a giant fowl, legs which turn on command so that the cottage faces approaching visitors. Our gallery tour ends at “The Great Gate of Kiev,” designed by Hartman to commemorate the attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Though never built, it lives on in Mussorgsky’s music which, along with Ravel’s rich orchestration, so aptly reflects the grandiose nature of the triumphal archway as originally conceived. Our gallery tour comes to a thunderous close with a brief reappearance of the “Promenade” theme.
- Michaelene Gorney
Rimsky-Korsakov, Russian 5, Vol 4, State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, Evgeny Svetlanov conducting, BGM Classics CD 09026-62684-2.
Andrews University Symphony Orchestra, Great Master of Russian Music, April 13, 2008, Program Notes by Linda Mack, 2008, https://www.andrews.edu/~mack/pnotes/apr1308pnotes.html#rimsky.
American Heritage Symphonic Series Vol 1, Chicago Sinfonietta, Paul Freeman, Conductor, liner notes by Dominique-René de Lerma, Cedille Records, CDR 90000 055, 2000.
Oregon Symphony, September 13, 2016, Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz, 2014, http://www.orsymphony.org/concerts/1415/programnotes/sc3.aspx.
Manuel de Falla, Orchestral Works, Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting, liner notes by Julian Haylock, Sony Essential Classics CD SBK 89291, 2000.
American Masterpieces: Bernstein, Barber, Gershwin, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Leonard Bernstein conducting, liner notes by David Montgomery, Deutsche Grammaphon CD 471 737-2.
Leonard Bernstein, On the Town, Working Notes, http://www.leonardbernstein.com/onthetown_notes.htm.
Cal Performances, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, November 22, 2009, Program Notes by Aaron Grad, http://calperformances.org/learn/program_notes/2009/pn_shanghai.pdf
Jonathan Kramer, Listen to the Music: A Self-Guided Tour Through the Orchestral Repertoire, Schirmer Book, New York, New York, 1998.
“Images for Pictures at an Exhibition” by Tim Eagen, January, 2000, http://www.stmoroky.com/reviews/gallery/pictures/hartmann.htm.