Program Notes: Britten’s Storm and Tchaikovsky’s Strings

Michael Abels, “Global Warming”

Global Warming is an orchestral work that uses the term to describe the warming of the international relations that was happening in the world at that time. The Berlin Wall had just come down, the Cold War was declared over. “I wanted to write a piece that explored the similarities I heard between music of various cultures,” Abels said.

“It begins with a desert scene, a depiction of a futuristic vast desert, with desert locusts buzzing in the background. But soon the piece turns quite uplifting. There are elements of Irish music, African music, Persian rhythms, drones, blended to display their commonalities in a way that is often quite joyous. But rather than end happily, the piece suddenly returns to its original, stark, desert scene, leaving it to the listener to decide which version of global warming they prefer. At the time of its premiere, global warming was not the politically charged term it is today. The piece was not written as a political statement, but its political message has inevitably deepened as climate change has evolved from theory into reality.”

© Michael Abels

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48

Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies, two of his solo concertos, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake are surely mainstays of the traditional and popular symphonic repertoire, whose inimitable melodies no doubt most come to mind to music lovers everywhere. To this must be added the American contemporary mania for his ballet, The Nutcracker, at Christmastime and the potboiler 1812 Overture on Independence Day. Notwithstanding the depth and breadth of his large oeuvre—including chamber music, songs, operas, other overtures, ballets, and concertos, solo piano works, and more–his evergreen Serenade for Strings, too, takes a secure place with the aforementioned popular audience favorites. It’s an eternal favorite and is perhaps best known for its use by the great choreographer George Balanchine in his ballet, Serenade (1934).

Tchaikovsky’s first mature compositions stem from 1867, with his initial widespread recognition coming with Romeo and Juliet in 1869. The 1870s were years of great fecundity, and saw such masterpieces as the ballet Swan Lake, the first piano concerto, his violin concerto, Eugene Onegin, his fourth symphony, and more. 

After all this success, in the Fall of 1880 he started sketching out rough designs for a multi-movement work—in his mind not clearly a string quartet or a symphony—and working quickly he soon finished what had become a serenade for string orchestra.  

In a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, he wrote that he “. . . composed from an innate impulse; that is something which arises from having freedom to think and is not devoid of true worth.” Cast in four movements, it received its première later that fall at the Moscow Conservatory, in a private performance as a surprise for the visiting composer. It soon enjoyed widespread performance, making its way to New York by 1885. The composer himself conducted it at a performance in Baltimore in 1891. Its popularity and reputation have remained ensconced in the repertoire.

The first of its four movements, Pezzo in forma di sonatina, was conceived as a conscious reflection of the style of Mozart in the form of a classical sonatina, including a slow introduction. Mozart was Tchaikovsky’s favorite composer, and he penned this pastiche in his honor. The Serenade may be scored for strings alone, but the introductory andante begins with a muscular, powerful mien, with rich, full scoring for the strings, including double stops galore. Tchaikovsky loved a big, full string sound, and in this case averred that the more the better! The simple opening motif is repeated several times, each in a nuanced different scoring in the best Tchaikovsky manner, before the thirty-seven bars come to a pianissimo end.

The fast movement proper ensues immediately, and the first theme, while not a waltz per se, displays the familiar Tchaikovsky mastery of its pulsing compound meter. After some forays into darker keys, the second theme (in G Major) clearly is arrived at, and in this case is a scampering affair in fast, repeated notes. As is often common in a sonatina, there is no development and after the second theme has had its due, the first theme returns, followed by the second theme, this time in the textbook main key. An abbreviated return of the opening andante concludes the work but notice the sly chromatic allusion to darker matters just before the end.

The second movement is a charming little waltz, a dance style in which Tchaikovsky was sans pareil. The simple tune, mostly just a scale, shows how much the composer could do with the simplest of materials—not unlike a great chef. After the usual diversion in the middle of the movement, the main theme returns and cadences gently. Throughout, the composer makes frequent and enchanting use of the little hesitations and stop times so typical of the graceful choreography of the waltz.

élégie is perhaps the most substantive of the four movements and opens with more of Tchaikovsky’s adroit use of simple scales as melodic material. Its lush, close voicing, and somewhat ambiguous tonality gives it a rather antique aura. It soon seems to settle on the relative minor key, but then quickly moves to D Major for the following animato section. There, the winsome tune (again, a simple scale) is nothing so much as an implied vocal “serenade” with triplet pizzicatos in the rest of the orchestra evoking a “singer’s” guitar accompaniment. Various other sections take up the tune in artful variations, with beguiling counterpoint, until a little cadenza-like passage in the first violins takes us to the recap of the slow introduction. But Tchaikovsky is not finished yet. In a manner so familiar from his symphonies, he extends the passage, and introduces his familiar “throbbing” cross-rhythms over a sustained bass. Then, everyone ascends into the acoustic stratosphere to end as high and soft as possible on harmonics.

The last movement has a rather slow introduction, too, starting in the high, soft vein as the previous ending—this time with mutes. After some brief musical musing in a rather subdued mood, the “spirited” movement properly begins. Both slow introduction and the following allegro are based upon Russian traditional melodies. The first fast tune is a rather simple little one, whose dance-like character is worked through thoroughly before yielding to the second idea, a somewhat more lyrical one. Tchaikovsky wrings a lot out of these two little melodies, adding some gracious countermelodies along the way, before a return to the rich, full, and slow introduction to the first movement rounds the whole thing off. After which a scampering coda based on the first Russian tune races to the end, with the usual Tchaikovsky mastery of a scintillating dash to the conclusion. 

©2022 William E. Runyan


Franz Joseph Haydn, Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major, Hob. I/105

Truly a pivotal figure in classical music, Franz Joseph Haydn came from humble roots, born to a wheelwright and cook in the village of Rohrau, not far from Vienna. Possessing an excellent voice, he entered the choir school at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna as a young child. His skill developed quickly and he even taught his younger brother, Michael, when he too went to St. Stephen’s. Indeed, Michael was considered the more talented of the pair. Alas, Joseph’s choir days came to an end as his soprano voice changed. He began teaching and working as a freelance musician for a living. Fortunately, he came into the orbit of the Italian opera composer Nicola Porpora, who befriended the young musician and provided instruction as well as introductions to wealthy patrons.

Haydn landed a regular gig in 1757 in the retinue of Count Morzin and in 1761 began what would be the job of his lifetime, working for the Esterházys, a noble Hungarian family. Prince Paul Anton Esterházy and subsequently his brother, Nikolaus, provided ample opportunities for Haydn to display his creative prowess. He codified the classical symphonic form, writing more than 100 symphonies of increasing complexity; more or less invented the string quartet, composing 68 works in the new genre; wrote more than a dozen operas, over 40 piano trios, more than 50 keyboard sonatas, a number of sacred works — and the list goes on. In deference to Prince Nikolaus’ preference for the baryton (a lesser-known member of the viol family), Haydn even composed more than 170 works including or featuring the instrument. The abundance of his output correlates to some degree to his isolation. Prince Nikolaus preferred his countryside palace, Eszterháza, and Haydn thus spent most of his time away from colleagues in musical centers. As he put it, he was “forced to become original.”

With the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790, his successor Anton disbanded the musical forces, leaving Haydn at loose ends. This was actually a boon as it permitted him to travel to London where he was received like royalty. His first trip, in 1791-92, was at the instigation of German violinist and impresario, Johann Peter Salomon. He returned in 1794-95 to ever greater acclaim — and financial benefit — as well as encouragement from King George III to settle in England. He declined the offer and went back to familiar ground, working (part-time) for Prince Nikolaus II in Eisenstadt and Vienna. In these years of semi-retirement, he composed two oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, as well as his popular Trumpet Concerto and the last nine of his string quartets. Ill health plagued him for the last few years of his life and he died in 1809, just weeks after Napoleon’s French army took Vienna.

During Haydn’s first trip to London, he was asked to compose a sinfonia concertante for a concert series promoted by the violinist Johann Peter Salomon, possibly in response to similar works on a competing series by Haydn’s former student, Ignaz Pleyel. Following its premiere in 1792, Haydn’s Sinfornia Concertante was described by the London press as “profound, airy, affecting, and original.” The opening allegro is elegant and well balanced, providing ample opportunity for the solo instruments to shine, individually and collectively. Haydn’s musical imagination and highly polished craftsmanship create a work that invites one to linger in sheer enjoyment. The violin leads, likely out of deference to Salomon, but this is a delightful blend of chamber music with orchestral support. A group cadenza brings the movement to an enchanting close. The central andante movement epitomizes grace and refinement, a quiet walk through the garden. The finale is truly spirited. A violin recitative comments on the lively opening theme before the ensemble dashes forth in a good natured gambol. The momentum is stilled briefly as the violin and cello exchange ascending arpeggios. The concluding bars are delectably vintage Haydn.

© Eric T. Williams

Benjamin Britten, Four Sea Interludes, Op. 33a from Peter Grimes

Benjamin Britten is one of the last century’s most respected composers, and unquestionably the most influential and admired British composer from WW II until his death in 1976. Fantastically gifted from an early age (almost a thousand compositions before his first mature, published one), he was blessed with the early attainment of an authentic personal “voice” in his musical style. That style was at once perceived as modern, fresh, and non-derivative, and yet generally accessible and popular with the broad public for art music. From the beginning he was practically contemptuous of the mainstream of revered British composers; Elgar, Vaughan William, Holst, and others, many of whom he snarkily dubbed the “pastoralists.” Their utilization of traditional English folk music as an important stylistic source was substantially criticized by Britten as evidence of a lack of imagination and a reactionary step in a century whose art was moving rapidly into the future. 

He had a special gift for vocal music, and there are hundreds of works in various genres as evidence. But it is specifically in the field of opera and stage works that he made perhaps his most important contribution, starting with his first big success, Peter Grimes. That opera was finished in 1945, and he went on to compose well over a dozen more works that collectively place him with Richard Strauss, Puccini, and Janáček as the giants of twentieth-century opera. Nevertheless, Britten was an active and successful composer of instrumental music. The list is long, one only has to think of such works as Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, film scores, and several important solo concertos as apt evidence of his talent. And from his important opera, Peter Grimes, are the Four Sea Interludes, now an important addition to the standard orchestral repertoire.

Britten was born near the sea in Suffolk and spent much of his life close by. His opera, Peter Grimes, is centered on the sea and the townspeople of an isolated little fishing village. Based upon an early nineteenth-century narrative poem by George Crabbe, it is a dark, grim story of gossip, communal fear, and the persecution of an individual by society, which were some of the issues that Britten and his partner suffered in their own lives. The fisherman, Grimes, is suspicioned of murdering his young apprentices; his reputation not aided by his conflicted, belligerent, and generally off-putting personality.

There are six interludes in the opera, to facilitate the changing of scenes, and Britten extracted four of them as the orchestra suite. In the opera, a prologue sets the gloomy mood, wherein Grimes is unconvincingly cleared at an inquest of the death at sea of his apprentice. “Dawn” ominously opens the first act, introducing the song of the chorus, who drearily lament their life of labor. A birdlike solo flute alternates with majestic brass chords that not only evoke dawn over the sea, but then grow into a sinister evocation of the tragedy to come. The second act begins with “Sunday Morning,” a herky-jerky affair of conflicting musical ideas that appropriately herald the clashing events: a mob of angry neighbors storm the putative murderer’s house, and then ironically, the second apprentice dies, ostensibly an accident. 

“Moonlight” segues into the grinding dénouement of Act III, with the discovery of the second apprentice’s body, and Grimes’ flight to apparent suicide at sea. The fourth interlude, “Storm,” is the literal maelstrom that engulfs the tense events in the pub of the first act, and is a fit conclusion to this sordid little drama of death, distrust, and social isolation.

©2019 William E. Runyan