Program Notes: The Planets

Guillaume Connesson, Flammenschrift

Flammenschrift, that is to say “Letter of Fire”, is a word used by Goethe in his Elegy of Marienbad. I wanted to compose an air of fury which draws a psychological portrait of Beethoven and more broadly pay homage to German music. From Beethoven I draw the portrait of an angry, seething, impetuous man, whose inner violence shines through in many pages of his music. Beethoven never ceased to celebrate fraternity in his works even though he was often brutal with his relatives and servants. From this paradox was born this desire for a musical portrait. This misanthropic Beethoven, who we see walking in the street disheveled, with his misshapen hat, this solitary cursed by destiny but sanctified by genius, has always fascinated me: he constructed a very significant image of the artist in the imagination from the 19th century to the present day.

To pay homage to him I use the same instrumental nomenclature as his Fifth Symphony, but also characteristic block oppositions (the winds against the strings) and above all a rhythmic writing which makes numerous allusions to his works. But more broadly, it is to all Germanic music that I wanted to pay homage with nods to the writing of Brahms and Richard Strauss at the end of the piece.

Flammenschrift appears as a double sonata form without recapitulation. Two wild themes are first presented, a third, more relaxed at the start (by the clarinets and bassoons) will undergo a large number of transformations, finally a fourth, more lyrical theme completes the initial material. After a great development the four themes are transmuted, in the memory of the irruption of the major mode of the finale of the Fifth: the drama is then followed by a dance of joy.

© Guillaume Connesson

Franz Liszt, Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, S. 124

In the pantheon of musical greats, it would be difficult indeed to think of anyone whose reputation as man, performer, and composer has varied more with both scholars and the public. He was clearly one of the most influential musicians of the nineteenth century, both as composer and as one whose virtuosity as pianist was, and probably still is, unexcelled. Musical composition during the Romantic period in music tended to roughly align with two schools of thought: those who believed there was significant life left in the traditional approaches inherited from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and those who pushed ahead into the future with new approaches to basics of form, harmony, and esthetics. Only a moment’s reflection will remind us that the former group included Brahms, for example, and the latter, our friends, Wagner, Berlioz, and, of course, Franz Liszt.

After World War I, with the advent of musical modernism and the waning of respect for the music of the nineteenth century, it became fashionable to deride just about everything to do with Liszt. His compositions were viewed as lightweight, bombastic affairs that sacrificed integrity for cheap theatrics, borne by stellar, but empty virtuosity, too freighted with extra-musical romantic mush. His personal life was a perfect exemplar of a nineteenth-century “rock star,” with swooning admirers and flagrant public violation of moral values. No one, except perhaps Paganini, wowed the public more on the stage. Liszt more or less thumbed his nose at every convention, musical and social, for the aggrandizement of his personal and musical life.  So was the story.

Well, that was the common view until the advent of the revival of Romantic music after World War II. Most agree that the perceptions outlined above were a gross distortion. Where to start? His virtuosity was without peer, but in his compositions that very virtuosity—along with the important advances in the construction of pianos—laid the foundation for modern piano technique, and a myriad of possibilities for new textures in compositions for that instrument. His contributions to modern piano study, performance and composition are fundamental. As a teacher he was indefatigable, generous, and taught without compensation legions of students—whether they were of great talent or not. Today, we have come to appreciate his prescience for the directions of advanced harmony that informed early twentieth-century composition. His late piano works anticipate much of what we hear in the harmonies, scales, and economical textures of Debussy, Schoenberg, and others. And Liszt knew it and predicted it. The nineteenth-century’s answer to the symphony, the tone poem, was his creation. Yes, he did notoriously live without the convention of marriage with other men’s wives, and fathered children with them. But those relationships were few, long lived, and with women the legitimacy of whose marriages were questionable, anyway. He was devoted to them, loved his children deeply, and late in life, turned more and more to the solace of what was a lifelong sincere religiosity. He lived in Rome at the Vatican, and took minor clerical orders, and became a dedicated associate of the establishment there, including the Pope.

A prolific composer with hundreds of works, he wrote chiefly for the piano, but also for the organ, for chorus, solo voice, and the orchestra. Among his works for solo instrument and orchestra are two fully completed piano concertos, out of many infrequently performed works, which entered the standard repertoire early on (a third recently surfaced). He composed both of them during the same period, from the 1830s to the1850s, revising them, and not giving the premières until long after the inception of their composition.

The E-flat concerto was first performed in 1855 with Liszt as soloist and another great musical proto-romanticist conducting, Hector Berlioz. Liszt’s original title for the work, “Première Concerto Symphonique pour Piano et Orchestre,” gives us a strong clue to an important aspect of the overall form of this concerto. It is, indeed, symphonic in its conception, with all four movements mirroring the traditional makeup of a symphony:  fast, slow, scherzo, and fast. Liszt, ever the innovator, thus dropped the traditional three-movement scheme of concertos, and then went one further by designing his first concerto to blend all four movements together into one continuous, unified work. Liszt was a master of the technique, “thematic transformation,” in which a given idea appears throughout a large work literally transformed into various guises. These different appearances at first seem to be totally new ideas, but are in fact, cleverly derived from the original. He pursued this in most of his large, single movement forms, whether for solo piano, or in another of his innovations: the symphonic poem.

The main theme is impossible to miss, in the stentorian announcement by unison strings at the very beginning. Listen well, for it subtly informs the other themes that follow. The piano immediately answers with a Lisztian roulade, followed by an exquisite, lyrical phrase in the best Chopin tradition, and we’re off to the races. Each section has its own themes, as does a sonata form, and Liszt exploits that idea in the concerto. While the orchestra is clearly in a subordinate, accompanying role, there are nevertheless opportunities for the group to shine, especially in many of the duets between various orchestra soloists and the pianist—clarinet and viola, especially. The virtuosity of Liszt is clearly on display throughout, with dazzling rapid octaves, and a plethora of other impressive digital pyrotechnics. When the last movement arrives, we hear the main theme from the very beginning, of course in a new guise, and a review of all the themes from the other sections suitably transformed. This jolly, but sturdy, march is comprised of all of this, new—yet familiar, and careens to a brilliant conclusion. While this first concerto is representative of the dazzling virtuosity Liszt is known for, and does not yet show the abstruse paths to the future that his late works imbue, it is nevertheless a work of great integrity and beauty. It is clear evidence of genius in a protean man now newly appreciated.

© 2016 William E. Runyan


Gustav Holst, The Planets, Op. 32

Gustav Holst is one of England’s most revered composers, creator of musical works in great variety: choral music, songs, band music, orchestral works, ballet, and more. His musical purview was remarkably diverse, and his compositions are frequently performed and appreciated in Great Britain. His popularity there bears comparison with his good friend and follow composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. In this country the matter is somewhat different. His reputation rests largely, and solidly, upon his two immortal works for band, Suites No. 1 and No. 2 for Military Band. It is hard, indeed, to participate in American public school music band programs without having performed one or both of these classics. They simply stand at the top of the repertoire for band, and almost every American band student knows them well. On the other hand, however, those who frequent professional orchestra concerts in this country largely know Holst through his most popular orchestral work, The Planets.

Born of Scandinavian descent in rural England to a musical, middle-class family, Holst received a musical education early, playing the violin and piano, and later taking up the trombone, the mastery of which his father thought would help his asthma. Holst worked for a while as a village organist and choirmaster before attending the Royal College of Music, where he met his life-long friend Vaughan Williams. He eventually focused on the trombone and earned a modest living early on as a member of various orchestras. He soon gave that life up, however, and spent the rest of his life teaching music in private girls’ schools.

The musical life of Great Britain in those days was strongly influenced by a new appreciation and re-examination of the native musical treasures of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as a fascination with traditional English folk tunes. These influences were significant in the lives of both Holst and Vaughan Williams. Of course, he was well aware of the major compositions of contemporary composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel, and Richard Strauss, and these figured in his artistic development, as well. Two rather unusual, but important, influences in his life and works were Hindu religion and philosophy, and astrology. His abiding interest in Hindu texts began early in the century, leading him to engage in the formal study of Sanskrit, translating the texts for himself, and to compose several of his important works on those texts, including two operas. His association with astrology began during a trip to Spain in 1912, when a friend of his inspired the interest, and Holst maintained an interest in the subject, reading fortunes along the way, for the rest of his life.

It is that interest in astrology—not astronomy—that is central to his composition of The Planets. Holst began the work about 1913, gradually completing it by 1917. The first performance was given privately in 1918, and word of mouth raised public expectations for the first public performance in 1920. Originally entitled Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra, the suite suggests to many his familiarity with Schoenberg’s similar use of the phrase. Others see inspiration derived from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Holst’s pictorialism is less specific than these antecedents, but spectacularly vivid, nonetheless. Indeed, composed for a large orchestra, large—and perhaps more importantly—varied orchestras were all the rage in the late romantic era, with the orchestras of Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Stravinsky, among others, as models. In addition to the usual full orchestra, Holst’s score calls for woodwinds in fours, including at times, alto flute, two piccolos, and the (really) rare bass oboe. The brass section features six horns, four trumpets, and, in addition to the standard bass tuba, a smaller, tenor tuba. There’s an organ and a celesta, and for the final movement, a wordless women’s chorus—à la Debussy.

The order and number of the seven movements has generated much discussion with regard to the actual planets and their number and position. It’s all irrelevant, for Holst’s work has to do with the astrological signs—of which there are seven—and not with how we define what planets are, or their respective positions with relation to the sun, even what conditions may or may not be on them. So, the order of movements, beginning with Mars, stems from the astrological succession.

Holst chose the relatively unusual time signature of five-four time for this ominous evocation of war, beginning with a hypnotic rhythm, repeated over and over, as chords constantly grow and threaten, until they are practically howling. Following a reiteration of the driving, repeated rhythm in the strings, the rarely used small, or tenor tuba, is featured along the trumpets in punchy fanfares. This is the original Darth Vader and the Death Star music! The dreary, desolate landscape of destruction in war is admirably depicted in a bleak, slower middle section before a repeat of the opening hammering material. This gripping—no glory here!—evocation of war ends with dramatic, blunt hammer strokes, separated by pauses that leaves no doubt of the utter destruction and obliteration of war.

Venus, bringer of peace, answers a call from the solo horn, and we are ushered into a tranquil world aptly evocative of the Roman goddess of love and beauty, astrologically associated with harmony and balance. A gentle succession of woodwind passages and lush string sonorities, enhanced by the exotic sound of the celesta create a marvelous respite from Mars. Holst’s familiarity and obvious respect for the music of Debussy seems clear, here in this floating serenity. Although, it must be said, the solo cello sounds suspiciously like some passages in compositions of Holst’s best friend, Vaughan Williams.

Mercury zips by next, in a quicksilver movement befitting the winged messenger of the gods. In astrology, Mercury also is the symbol of rationality and mentality. Cascades of scales and twittering rhythms carry thought along like lightning. The magic celesta part is reminiscent of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier, and our ubiquitous cell phone beeps, as well.

Another quick movement follows, this time a tribute to Jupiter, the “bringer of jollity.” Jupiter was considered the ruler of the gods, and the planet, Jupiter, ruler of all the other planets. Merrymaking and gambling play a part in his personality, as well, and the latter aspect comes into play in the jaunty opening tunes, one zippy and syncopated, and the other a rather thumping waltz. But in the middle, we are treated to a noble and exalting tune as only the Edwardians can compose—definitely fit for a king (of some kind). It’s a glorious melody that came to be adapted later by Holst as a church hymn, “Thaxed” (after the village he spent so much time) to the text, “I Vow to Thee, My Country”, by Cecil Spring Rice. This continues to be sung and revered in Great Britain and is the theme song of the Rugby World Cup, though it’s known as “World in Union.” The raffish tunes return, and the movement ends.

Saturn, the “Bringer of Old Age” is ushered slowly in by two cold static woodwind chords, endlessly repeated. After some ominous string comments, the brass intone a stately procession. In astrology Saturn is the founder of social order and civilizations, charged with duty, responsibility, and discipline. The brass evidently carry this duty heavily as they plod to a climax, gradually subsiding into a dissolution borne by the strings and oscillating woodwinds that float timelessly and without emotion into an apparent infinity.

Four imposing notes slowly and loudly announced by the brass are the motif of “Uranus the Magician.” They return throughout the movement in a remarkable variety of guises. But the movement proper is a stomping, tramping march dedicated to the guardian of genius and discovery, and associated with sudden and unexpected changes. The march is somewhat redolent of any number of French antecedents—those of Delibes and Dukas, or even Berlioz may come to mind. The bassoon trio sets us off on this little rollicking affair—interrupted from time to time by those four identifying notes. The orchestra builds the march almost out of control, only to subside. The four-note motto is heard again in soft, pizzicato notes in the harp. The bassoons make a half-hearted attempt to resume the march, but fail.  The brass loudly play the motto again, and finally harp and strings end this enigmatic paean to the clever “Magician.”

The remarkable fact of the last movement, “Neptune the Mystic” is simply that it was composed almost one hundred years ago. In it Holst dispenses with so many of the rational and organizing principles of music and wonderfully creates an atmosphere of not only the mystic, but also of the traditional characteristics associated with the planet Neptune: illusion, confusion, and deception. Meter (yes, it is the same five-four of the first movement—but can you easily hear it, really?), chord progressions, melodies, form, shape—all play minimal to non-existent roles, here at the end. Rather, the composer uses exotic successions of harmonies and fragments of non-traditional scales to create the floating sound that envelops us. Imaginative orchestration in the great tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, and Debussy clearly affirms Holst’s mastery. This is truly “space music” long before the advent of the clichés with which we are all familiar. As the orchestra gradually fades into nothingness, only the wordless women’s chorus (he had used it in an earlier work) is left, gradually vanishing from our hearing. It is the only truly human element that stays with us as the composer’s exploration of our humanity, writ in the heavens, fades.  The conceit is that perhaps—they don’t end.

© 2023 William E. Runyan