Program Notes: Opening Night, Slatkin Returns

Bedřich Smetana, Vltava: The Moldau

Smetana is the first great Czech composer of the nineteenth century and, owing to the general trend towards nationalism during the late romantic period, the first significant Czech composer to integrate indigenous folk elements into his musical style. He is known the world over for having composed what is essentially the Czech national opera, The Bartered Bride, as well as a wealth of other works. He exerted a significant influence on his younger colleague, Antonín Dvořák, and along with the latter, is honored with his own museum in present-day Prague. The tone poem for orchestra, a distinctive creation of the progressive wing of composers during the nineteenth century, may be said to be the brainchild of Franz Listz, and in 1857 Smetana visited Liszt in Weimar, and took his ideas to heart. The Czechs and Russians really adopted Liszt’s tone poem ideas with much greater alacrity than did his countrymen, and consequently, we have numerous examples by Smetana’s successors: Dvořák, Fibich, Janácek, Novák, Suk and Ostrčil.

Between the years 1874 and 1880 Smetana wrote a cycle of six tone poems, each depicting some important aspect of Czech history or geography. The whole cycle is entitled, Má vlast, or My Fatherland; The Moldau is the second of the six works, and, unfortunately, the only one of them that is regularly heard in this country. The real title of the The Moldau is Vltava, the Czech name for the river, over which spans the bridge in Prague crowded by tourists today. Moldau is the German name for the river, which foreign oppressors used during the long years of Czech domination by German-speaking countries; it was not used by Smetana, nor today by anyone else.

It is easy and pleasing to follow the “story” of this tone poem, for Smetana “painted” the elements in the changing trip down the river most evocatively.  Moreover, he left us signposts in his own written notes. The river begins high in the hills as a small mountain stream, heard in the burbling woodwinds and strings.  It courses through the forests and meadows, passing along the way a rustic peasant wedding heard through a folk dance. It then moves into darkness, illuminated only by the moon, and we hear mermaids dancing serenely in the night. The famous St. John’s Rapids inspire a stormy passage, with swirling whitewater. The music broadens majestically (with the river) as we approach Prague, and Smetana calls upon the brass to paint the imposing crags of the rocks of Vyšehrad, the magnificent overlook in Prague, home of the mythological origin of the Czech people. Incidentally, both Smetana and Dvořák are buried there in Vyšehrad Cemetery, the resting place of the cultural “heroes” of the Czech people. Finally, the music soars to its emotional heights as the river leaves Prague on its way to the (smaller) Elbe and the sea.

© William E. Runyan

Zoltán Kodály, Variations on a Hungarian Folksong (The Peacock)

Zoltán Kodály was born in Kecskemét in 1882, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father worked for the railroad and so the family moved with some degree of frequency. Both parents were amateur musicians; his mother played piano and his father played violin. Kodály studied piano, violin, viola, and even learned cello so that he could play in his father’s string quartet. He also sang in the choir at Nagyszombat Cathedral and composed some music, albeit without training or guidance.

Kodály began university studies in Budapest in 1900, focusing on modern languages but the lure of music was exceptionally strong and he shifted to the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. He pursued additional studies at Eötvös Kollégium and Péter Pázmány University. His doctoral thesis was “Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folksong,” combining his interest in music and languages as well as a focus on Hungarian music. Hungary had long been subject to Habsburg rule and the result was an emphasis on we might now call German culture. To formally study and celebrate Hungarian culture was a significant break with tradition.

In 1905, Kodály’s life changed markedly. He met Emma Gruber, a woman nearly 20 years older than he and married to a banker. She was a gifted composer and linguist and the two fell in love. She divorced Gruber and married Kodály in 1910 and the two would be happily married for nearly 50 years before her death at the age of 95.

Also in 1905, Kodály met Béla Bartók who became a lifelong colleague and friend. Bartók learned of Kodály’s expertise in Hungarian folksong and sought him out due to his own interest in the subject. The two men soon began traveling the Hungarian countryside with music notebooks and wax cylinder recorders, recording and notating folk songs. Kodály focused on Hungarian folk songs while Bartok devoted his energy to exploring folk music of several cultures and to comparative musicology. They were seminal figures in the nascent field of ethnomusicology and in all, they cataloged more than 10,000 melodies. They published a collection of Hungarian folk songs in 1906 and then Kodály traveled to Berlin and Paris. While in Paris, he attended lectures by organist and composer Charles Widor and encountered the music of Claude Debussy, which would subsequently color his own music.

After returning to Budapest in 1907, Kodály was appointed to the faculty of the Liszt Academy where he taught music theory and composition most of his life, with some interruptions due to political turmoil. A pioneer in the field of music education, he strongly believed in the benefits of music and that teaching children music — beginning with singing good choral music — would aid their learning overall. More of a philosophy than a method, this concept, tagged with Kodály’s name, has been adopted by thousands of teachers worldwide. Over the years, Kodály composed a significant amount of choral music for young children in order to assure that there would be high quality repertoire to facilitate their learning.

Kodály’s profile as a composer would undergo a huge shift in 1923 with the premiere of his oratorio Psalmus Hungaricus, commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the union of the cities of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda under the name Budapest. Now recognized as a Hungarian cultural leader, Kodály’s music began receiving international acclaim, including his opera Háry János and the orchestral suite Dances of Galánta.

After retiring from the Liszt Academy, Kodály toured the United States, England, Switzerland, France, Israel and the Soviet Union, conducting his music and advocating for music education. He served as president of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences and Hungarian Arts Council, and in 1962 received the Order of the Hungarian People’s Republic as well as many honorary doctorates and other honors. He died in Budapest in 1967.

The commission for Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, often referred to as “The Peacock Variations,” came from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 1938, seeking a work to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Kodály was happy to oblige and, folk music never far from his mind, he opted to write variations on a folk song he had recently set for men’s chorus, “The Peacock.” Based on a 1907 poem by Ady Endre but employing a melody dating back as much as 1,500 years, “The Peacock” was a potent symbol of the Hungarian struggle for freedom and cultural appreciation. As Kodály noted about “The Peacock Variations,” “no special musical knowledge whatever is needed to understand them; but we must know the folk song out of which they have grown like a flower from a seed.”

Fölszállott a páva

“Fölszállott a páva a vármegye-házra,
Sok szegény legénynek szabadulására.”

Kényes, büszke pávák, Nap-szédítő tollak,
Hírrel hirdessétek: másképpen lesz holnap.

Másképpen lesz holnap, másképpen lesz végre,
Új arcok, új szemek kacagnak az égre.

Új szelek nyögetik az ős, magyar fákat,
Várjuk már, várjuk az új magyar csodákat.

Vagy bolondok vagyunk s elveszünk egy szálig,
Vagy ez a mi hitünk valóságra válik.

Új lángok, új hitek, új kohók, új szentek,
Vagy vagytok, vagy ismét semmi ködbe mentek.

Vagy láng csap az ódon, vad vármegye-házra,
Vagy itt ül a lelkünk tovább leigázva.

Vagy lesz új értelmük a magyar igéknek,
Vagy marad régiben a bús, magyar élet.

“Fölszállott a páva a vármegye-házra,
Sok szegény legénynek szabadulására.”

A peacock takes its perch

“A peacock takes its perch upon the county hall —
A sign that freedom comes to many folk in thrall.”

Let the proud, frail peacock, whose feathers daze the sun,
Proclaim that tomorrow here all will be undone.

Tomorrow all will change, be changed at last.
New eyes in new battles will turn with laughter to the skies.

New winds will make laments in the old Magyar trees,
While we await, await new Magyar mysteries.

Either we all are fools, and to a man shall die,
Or else this faith of ours will prove it does not lie.

New forges and new fires, new faiths, new holy men,
Either you’ll come to life, or be nothing again.

Either the ancient hall will fall from the flame’s stroke,
Or our souls will sit here, bound in the ancient yoke.

Either in Magyar words new meanings will unfold,
Or the sad Magyar life will linger as of old.

“A peacock takes its perch upon the county hall —
A sign that freedom comes to many folk in thrall.”

(Translation by Maurice Bowra)

Conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra premiered “The Peacock Variations” on November 23rd, 1939, and it soon became one of Kodály’s most popular works. Contemporaneously, Kodály wrote an essay entitled Mi a Magyar a zenében? (What is Hungarian in music?) in which he listed the attributes of Hungarian folk music, an apt description of “The Peacock Variations.”

What musical features are characteristic of Hungarian folk music? In general, it is active rather than passive, an expression of will rather than emotion . . . . Rhythm that is sharp, definite and varied. Its melody has buoyancy and freedom of movement, and does not unfold timidly from a premeditated harmonic base. Its form is concise, proportionate, lucid and transparent . . . . If Hungarian composed music is really inspired by the spirit of folk music and wishes to continue the traditions, it must retain all these qualities.

Kodály richly varies the theme in “The Peacock Variations” with vividly shimmering tone colors and rhythmic vitality. Each variation builds on the preceding one, giving the work an organic feel. While the overall folk character remains constant, Kodály’s imaginative orchestration maintains interest throughout a wide range of tempo changes. Sometimes playful and jocular, occasionally somber, sporadically stately and frequently tender, the variations are wonderfully kaleidoscopic — certainly as resplendent as their namesake.

© Eric T. Williams


Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending

Ralph (pronounced “Rayf” — and he was quite insistent on this point!) Vaughan Williams was a prolific English composer whose music was strongly influenced by English folksong. Born to an affluent family, he studied at Cambridge and London’s Royal College of Music where his fellow students included composer Gustav Holst and conductor Leopold Stokowski. There was additional study with Maurice Ravel during a brief sojourn in Paris.

The name Ralph is derived from Old Norse and Old English. Some linguists believe that the “Rayf” pronunciation came about during the Great Vowel Shift, taking place in England between 1350 and 1700. Because Middle English long vowels (and some consonants) changed their pronunciation and some degree of spelling standardization occurred during that time, spelling and pronunciation can differ. “Rayf” is regarded by some as an upper-class or ‘posh’ variant.

Although agnostic, Vaughan Williams edited The English Hymnal, composed Christian choral music and wrote an opera based on The Pilgrim’s Progress. His work on The English Hymnal from 1904 to 1906 would shape his compositional style throughout his lifetime. He later commented, “I now know that two years of close association with some of the best (as well as some of the worst) tunes in the world was a better musical education than any amount of sonatas and fugues.” This experience, as well as his predilection for music from the Tudor and Stuart reigns in England, helped him break free of the Germanic tradition that had been so prevalent in English music during the preceding century.

Vaughan Williams served in the military throughout World War I, enlisting as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps at age 42 and then as a commissioned second lieutenant in an artillery regiment, serving on battlefields in France and Greece. Artillery noise damaged his hearing, leading to deafness in his later years.

Vaughan Williams composed works in a wide range of genres, including songs, operas, choral works, ballets, symphonies, concertos, and chamber music. He declined knighthood but accepted the Order of Merit, a far more exclusive honor limited to 24 living individuals, not including honorary appointees. Current members include Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web), artist David Hockney, and conductor Simon Rattle.

The most common lark throughout England is the skylark, known for its vivid and profuse song, especially while on the wing. This inspired Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith to write an expansive poem, “The Lark Ascending,” lauding the bird’s soaring flight and joyful song. Although a confirmed Londoner (eventually moving to Dorking in 1929 for his wife’s health), Vaughan Williams appreciated the pastoral aspects of English life and art, and he was inspired by Meredith’s mellifluous description. Indeed, he included the following lines from Meredith’s 1881 poem in the score:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake…

For singing till his heaven fills,
’Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes…

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Vaughan Williams composed The Lark Ascending in 1914 for British violinist Marie Hall, shortly after completing his London Symphony. He set the work aside due to the outbreak of World War I and returned to it in 1920. Hall and pianist Geoffrey Mendham premiered the piece on December 15, 1920 in Shirehampton near Bristol. Vaughan Williams immediately set about orchestrating the work and Hall was the soloist for the orchestral version which premiered in London on June 14, 1921. Over the last century, it has become one of Vaughan Williams’ most popular works.

With the violin as a rhapsodic lark and the orchestra as pastoral landscape, Vaughan Williams presents a highly lyrical take on the English countryside. This nostalgic idyll begins and ends with exquisitely beautiful violin soliloquys, gentle wisps of sound drifting heavenward. In between these improvisatory flights of fancy, there are soaring lines, delicate chirrups, and soulful tunes floating on the air. The invocation of English folksong adds a gladsome spirit, but even at its most robust, there is a sense of tranquility that calms the spirit.

© Eric T. Williams

Paul Hindemith, Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

Hindemith is without question one of the most significant composers of the first half of the twentieth century, and one who stands almost alone in the breadth of his achievement. He espoused a musical philosophy that was founded in deep reverence of discipline, musicality, craftsmanship, mastery and respect for past musical traditions, and commitment to the education and training of students. He composed in almost every musical genre, and while certainly a “modern” composer, whose compositions explore a shifting degree of dissonance, his works draw upon almost every genre and compositional technique in music history. He emphasized fundamentals of musicianship for all and demonstrated that in his pedagogical works and in his own formidable performance skills. He wrote as solicitously and appropriately for young children as he did for professional performers. Trained primarily as a violinist—later switching to viola—he played in professional string quartets, and remarkably taught himself to play credibly on most of the orchestral instruments, the better to compose the series of solo sonatas that he wrote for most of them.

During the thirties he fell into disfavor with the Nazi government and emigrated; his wife was part Jewish and his earlier musical style was rather dissonant, both bad in National Socialists eyes. Ironically, by the time he fled his style was really couched in a more conservative, acceptable idiom, but no matter. He took a position at Yale University in 1940, became an American citizen, and established an influential career as a teacher of theory and composition, even leading the early music ensemble. His music, though part of the standard repertoire of the century, came to be viewed as somewhat passé by the younger composers of the fifties.  When apprised that they had referred to his works as “old iron,” he famously observed that it was better to be “old iron” than new “bull s—.” In 1953 he retired to a small village in Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1963. Never a controversial figure, he was the epitome of a solid musical citizen of genius who cultivated a dedicated artistic engagement with his public. He was dedicated to musical craftsmanship and reaching out to his public, no matter its level of musical sophistication. Interesting enough, for a man who had devised a complete “system” for modern composition and wrote fairly consistently therein, his music garnered much acclaim and popular appeal.

During his lifetime he was interested in composing in almost every genre, even opera, and left behind a very large corpus of compositions whose popularity with almost all musicians and performing groups still flourishes.  His chamber music is an impressive and important contribution, for he wrote for an amazing variety of small ensembles. While his music has been regularly performed by professional and student ensembles alike since his arrival in this country, his contributions to large ensembles, including opera, while respected, are of somewhat lesser importance. In 1951 he did make a major contribution to the repertoire of the concert band with his Symphony in Bb, commissioned by the US Army Band. Symphonic audiences know him best for his symphony, “Mathis der Mahler,” (1935) extracted from the opera of the same name, and for the suite, Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

The work has roots in 1940, the time of the composer’s immigration to the United States, and stems from discussions with Leo Massine, a well-known figure in the ballet world. Massine wanted a ballet suite based upon melodies by von Weber, but the initial efforts by Hindemith were stillborn and the collaboration was dropped. Evidently, Massine wanted more von Weber and less of Hindemith—his pungent, modern style was too much for the traditionalist. Moreover, Hindemith was not at all happy with Massine’s proposed sets and costumes based upon the art of Salvador Dali. Luckily, the material was kept, and later reworked by 1943 into four large movements for symphony orchestra. The material (actually, Hindemith borrowed more than just “themes”) is derived primarily from piano duets by von Weber with which Hindemith was very familiar, having played them with his wife on more than one occasion. Other material stems from von Weber’s incidental music for a play by Gozzi based upon the same Turandot legend made so famous in Puccini’s opera. Later, others choreographed the new version of the work, but those attempts have never enjoyed the enthusiastic reception of the purely symphonic presentation. It is probably the composer’s most popular composition.

Cast in four movements, the first movement is a vigorous march whose melodies sound vaguely like Shostakovich at times, but certainly more turgid and complex. Dissonant, thick textures alternate with simple little winsome tunes imaginatively orchestrated. After all the modernity and harmonic complexity, it is a true Hindemith hallmark when the movement ends on a powerful, simple major triad. The second movement, first heard in the solo flute, is based upon a real Chinese folk song—listen for the “black-key notes only” pentatonic scale. Those of a certain age (you know who you are) may note its similarity to a novelty pop tune from 1960. The tune is passed around the orchestra to almost every instrument or section, accompanied by an ever-changing weft of rhythms and secondary material, but the tune is always there and never hard to spot. Near the middle, after a descending vortex like a musical whirlpool, Hindemith, always the contrapuntalist, changes the whole texture and weaves a fugato, begun by the solo trombone, followed by almost everyone sequentially, and even includes brilliant sections for percussion alone. A solemn chord ends it all.

The third movement quietly features a few straightforward themes cast in variety of textures, often featuring the woodwinds, with little of the searing modern dissonances of the first movement. The last movement is rightly well known and opens with a short energetic statement from the brass, and a mysterious procession starts, heard first in oboe. Based originally on a funeral march, the composer uses the main tune at twice the original speed, but if you listen carefully the source mood is evident. This mood doesn’t last long though, for a cascade of twittering notes accompanies a heroic theme of affirmation first heard in the horns. The rousing drive to the end is led by virtuoso horn calls and celebratory support from all.

© 2015 William E. Runyan