Program Notes

East Texas Symphony Orchestra 2017-2018 Season

Opening Night: Jon Kimura Parker

October 7, 2017

 

Program Notes by Dr. Kyle Gullings

 

Tonight we take a journey tracing the influence of mid- to late-Romanticism and its reverberations into the first half of the twentieth century. In contrast to the earlier Classical Period of Haydn and Mozart, expect larger and more colorful orchestrations, greater virtuosic demands on the performers, and an increased focus on program music (works depicting a narrative). Further, the three compositions on this program in particular share a keen awareness of the past.

 

Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s (1865-1931) accessible yet distinct style earned him an international reputation, though his success was not quick to arrive. Known today mostly for his symphonies and concerti, Nielsen wrote for a wide variety of media, including chamber and vocal works, and even incidental music for theater. This interest in dramatizing events through music was on display in his Helios Overture (1903), which portrays the image of the sun rising then setting over the Aegean Sea. The scene is made explicit in the composer’s own notes on the score: “Silence and darkness, the sun rises with a joyous song of praise, it wanders its golden way and sinks quietly into the sea.” (The Carl Nielsen Edition, http://www.kb.dk/en/nb/dcm/cnu/.)

 

The temperament of this music – a grand and optimistic main theme surrounded by placid introduction and conclusion sections – is at first glance at odds with the tumultuous time in the composer’s life during which it was written. Nielsen and his wife, noted sculptor Anne Marie Brodersen, had quickly developed marital strife stemming in part from extended periods of separation (David Fanning, Grove Music Online). The two were on a lengthy stay in Greece to study ancient art and archaeology while Helios was written. The work, then, may reflect Nielsen’s longing for a modicum of tranquility – something distinctly lacking from his personal life.

 

In his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934), Sergei Rachmaninoff took as his source material the final movement of 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, Op. 1, a collection for solo violin by an Italian virtuoso born nearly 100 years before him. This theme from Caprice No. 24 has famously been adopted into new works by many composers, including Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, Witold Lutoslawski, and even Johannes Brahms. Rachmaninoff’s composition was written in Switzerland in 1934, and premiered in Baltimore in that same year (Geoffrey Norris, Grove Music Online).

 

The Rhapsody features stark contrasts of mood and tempo, a colorful orchestration, and a fiendishly difficult solo piano part rivaling Paganini’s brilliance. The sparse orchestral introduction and the initial piano entrance emphasize the structurally important notes of the primary theme: steps one and five of the scale. It’s as if the composer is tiptoeing into the work, plucking out the most essential pitches of the line, before presenting it in its full form.

 

A total of 24 variations are heard. They are often grouped into three large sections according to their tempos and key centers (Variations 1-10, 11-18, and 19-24), imitating the traditional three-movement structure of a concerto. Particularly noteworthy is the 18th variation in which the main theme is inverted (turned upside down), slowed dramatically, and placed over flowing arpeggios, resulting in one of the most exquisite melodies in the orchestral literature. This tune is repeated in the violins, then swells into a grand statement by the full orchestra before returning to an intimate solo piano texture. The remaining five variations revive the opening’s brisk tempo and grow to a bombastic ending.

 

In September of 1853, a young Johannes Brahms appeared at the home of composers Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf, armed with a cache of original compositions and a letter of introduction from violinist Joseph Joachim. He stayed with the couple for some time, greatly impressing them. Robert Schumann was so taken that he published an essay titled “Neue Bahnen” (“New Paths”) the following month, hailing Brahms as a musical genius destined to “give expression to his age in an ideal fashion” (George S. Bozarth and Walter Frisch, Grove Music Online). Due to this very public endorsement, the as yet unpublished Brahms came to be seen as the supposed artistic successor to the great Ludwig van Beethoven.

 

It is hard to overstate the impact of Beethoven on the musical life of Europe. Grounded in the Classical tradition, but laying the groundwork for many of the Romantic innovations to come, Beethoven’s legacy loomed large, especially in Vienna at the time of his death in 1827. It was under this shadow of exceedingly high expectations that Brahms began his Symphony No. 1 in 1855. Possibly due to this pressure, Brahms wouldn’t premiere the work until twenty-one years later.

 

Beethoven’s influence is evident throughout Brahms’ piece, especially in the outer movements, which feature slow introductions and triumphant progressions from C Minor to the parallel major. The first introduction begins with rising long tones in the violins over a relentless timpani beat before commencing with the first allegro theme, followed by the lyrical second theme in Eb Major.

 

The slow second movement begins in the surprising unrelated key of E Major and features exposed solo passages, beginning with the oboe. The third is the lightest movement in texture and affect, offering some levity before the weighty finale. After a moody and syncopated introduction featuring horn and flute over timpani, the fourth movement presents a melody distinctly, self-consciously reminiscent of the famous “Ode to Joy” theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

 

The work was a definite though not unqualified success. Conductor Hans von Bülow labeled it “Beethoven’s Tenth,” both a marker of high praise and a seeming accusation of plagiarism (Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers). Regardless, the work helped cement the composer’s position as a leading musical figure in Vienna during his last two decades. When he died at the age of 63, “the city declared a day of mourning and buried him in an honorary grave between Beethoven and Schubert” (Styra Avins, The Oxford Companion to Music). His reputation as the next great German master composer had been secured.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Kyle Gullings is a collaborative composer of opera, theater, and chamber works engaging diverse social topics including mental illness and the American Dream. His music has been recognized by the National Opera Association and SCI/ASCAP. He currently serves as Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition at The University of Texas at Tyler, where he advocates for open educational resources.

 

 


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