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Conspirare with the Austin Symphony
- May 4-5, 2012 8:00 PM
- where: Dell Hall directions
- conductor: Peter Bay, conductor - Craig Hella Johnson, guest conductor*
85 orchestra members, 150 choir members, 2 conductors, 1 stage!
|Bach/Stokowski||Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565*|
|Stravinsky||Symphony of Psalms|
|Bach/Stokowski||Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582|
Johann Sebastian Bach
b. 31 March 1685 (O.S. 21 March) in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach; d. 28 July 1750 in Leipzig, Germany.
Toccata and Fugue in d Minor, BWV 565
Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor BWV 582
Transcribed by Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977)
Leopold Stokowski was born in St. Marylebone, London, of Polish/Irish parentage. He received his education at the Royal College of Music and Oxford University, with his first professional appointment as organist at St. Bartholomew’s, (then St. James’ Piccadilly) in New York City. He became an American citizen in 1915 and subsequently found world fame as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra (1912-1938). A media darling, he reached an even wider audience as Musical Director of the Walt Disney cartoon film “Fantasia” (1940), which featured the Toccata and Fugue, and a little later appeared in the Hollywood musical “One Hundred Men and a Girl.” In the 1920s/30s, delighting some and angering others, Leopold Stokowski transcribed a number of J. S. Bach works for a large modern symphony orchestra. Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions are said to have brought to Bach, and possibly to the symphony hall, whole generations that would never have come to them otherwise. Stokowski argued that, except for these electrifying orchestrations, the general public was unlikely to have access to these works of Bach. Heard today, it is perhaps better to forget that this is Bach and imagine that this is Stokowski, a composer closer to Bruckner and the most grandiose inspirations of Brahms.
The word “toccata” literally means “touch,” and is usually associated with a work of dynamic brilliance for solo keyboard requiring great dexterity on the part of the performer. In Stokowski’s transcription of the Toccata and Fugue, each section of the orchestra is showcased then combined with the next as the flowing melodies bring forth rich colors, exploring matching sonorities and exploiting dramatic differences. Through the broad spectrum of the tonal color and dynamic range of the modern symphony orchestra, Stokowski builds on those inherent in the original organ score. The richly upholstered rubato filled symphonic texture heralds the work’s end with a recitative passage, alternating slow and fast (based on a fragmented hint of the Fugue’s first subject) as the music reaches its magisterial final bars.
The Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor was the first Bach organ work that Stokowski transcribed for full orchestra, which he did in 1922. As one of Bach’s most famous organ works, Stokowski would have performed it many times during his career as church organist during the period 1898 to 1908. In a passacaglia, a set of variations unfolds above a repeating bass line ostinato. Almost invariably the harmonic structure repeats itself along with the bass line, over and over. With so much repetition, one would think the formal structure should be tedious, and with lesser composers it often is. Bach, however, clearly establishes himself as its ultimate master; its massive power seems indomitable.
In the Stokowski, the unadorned ostinato is stated immediately by the cellos; it then repeats throughout as required by the form. There is an increased sense of unity by linking the two halves thematically: the first part of the passacaglia’s theme becomes the melodic material of the concluding fugue, but broken into shorter fragments. Bach’s ingenious counterpoint, which at times can be difficult to hear on the organ, stands out superbly because of the ornamentation Stokowski introduces (first in the violins, then the woodwinds, finally the brasses) adding a continuous variation in color.
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky
b. 17 June 1882 in Oranienbaum, Russia; d. 6 April 1971 in New York, New York.
Symphony of Psalms. This work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary, and the title page reads (in French): “This symphony, composed/to the glory of GOD/is dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its existence.” The premiere was planned for Boston Symphony concerts in December 1930, but conductor Serge Koussevitzky fell ill and the performance was postponed. The world premiere took place on December 13, 1930 with Ernest Ansermet conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Brussels Philharmonic Society. Koussevitzky introduced the work in America the following week with the chorus of the Cecilia Society, prepared by its conductor, Arthur Fiedler.
To point out that Stravinsky uses the word “symphony” in a special way is to be superfluous. No other composer has presented a more varied series of suggestions about what “symphony” can mean than Stravinsky, with his sequence of the Symphony in E-flat Major, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Symphony of Psalms, Symphony in C, and Symphony in Three Movements. Only with the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and the Symphony of Psalms does Stravinsky return to the original sense of “symphony” but with a departure from the Classic-Romantic associations that surround the word.
The Boston Symphony introduced new works before 1930, but it rarely commissioned them. Serge Koussevitzky’s decision to commission a group of new pieces from leading composers of the day to celebrate the orchestra’s first half-century began a tradition that has continued. Koussevitzky’s invitation to celebrate the orchestra’s anniversary produced such works as Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for strings and brass, Roussel’s Third Symphony, Copland’s Symphonic Ode, Hanson’s Second Symphony, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Koussevitzky made no stipulations about instrumentation or form in the commission and Stravinsky had had the project of composing psalm settings in mind for some time. The passages are the closing verses of Psalm 38, the opening verses of Psalm 39, and the complete Psalm 150 in the Latin text of the Vulgate. To note, the Vulgate numbering differs in most of the Psalms from the King James Version and all later translations used in the Protestant and Jewish traditions.
What Stravinsky wrote for in the Symphony of Psalms is a special distribution of instruments, with unusual concentration on certain sounds (flutes, trumpets and pianos) and complete omission of others (clarinets and high strings). The scoring and spacing even of a common chord becomes an adventure with the concentration of flutes, oboes, harp and pianos at the top and the parallel concentration of bassoons, contrabassoon, trombones, timpani, basses, harp and pianos at the bottom. Stravinsky began by composing the fast sections of the last movement first, concentrating on the repeated eighth-note figure heard on the words “Laudate Dominum.” After finishing that fast music, he started at the beginning of the work. Throughout the piece, Stravinsky is highly concerned with unity. A motive from what he had already composed of the last movement, a pair of interlocked thirds, derived into the root musical idea of the whole score. The psalms he chose are unified textually. The 39th Psalm is like an answer to the 38th. The Alleluia with which the 150th begins is the “new song” of the 39th. In another sense, the Symphony is unified in that its three movements are linked and to be sung and played without pause.
The opening chord is one of those Stravinskian sonorities that is so unusual and so striking that it is possible to recognize the work at once from that single sound. A simple triad yet contrary to all of the normal prescriptions of musical scoring as it stresses the third degree of the scale, which appears in four octaves in several instruments. Instead of modulating, as was common symphonic practice, Stravinsky makes a deliberately violent leap from the chord to the sixteenth-note figuration and back to the chord. The force of the gesture is unmistakable and purely his. He turns its energy inwards, marking the chord mezzoforte, and the repressed nature of his expressive impulses provides an essential clue to the sources of the beauty and power of his music. When the chorus enters, the rhythmic background slows to a steady eighth-note pattern presenting explicitly the interlocked thirds that make up the root motive taken from the trumpet-harp idea at the beginning of the Alleluia, over which the voices utter their plea, “Hear my prayer.” Each of these elements functions as a self-contained block, often punctuated by a repetition of the opening chord. Finally, as if in answer to this insistence, a climactic passage builds in long choral phrases and increasing dynamic energy to conclude on a massive major triad, the extended musical goal of the movement and a culmination of powerful effect.
In the first notes of the next psalm it becomes clear that the entire first movement has been one immense upbeat to the second. Following the increasingly intense prayer of the opening, the Dominum represents the believer waiting for the Lord’s response. An upside-down pyramid of fugues, it begins with a purely instrumental fugue of limited compass which employs only solo instruments. A climactic choral passage in octaves (“He has put in my mouth a new song”) is accompanied by strettos of the instrumental fugue in sharply dotted rhythms and leads to the movement’s conclusion.
After the plea for aid and the testimony that God has put a new song into the singer’s mouth, the final movement presents the Alleluia. Stravinsky regards Psalm 150 as a song to be danced. It is extraordinarily elevated, stately music, with the voices and instruments suggesting the somber joyfulness of church bells ringing for a slow procession. At the end of the energetic euphoria, the slower opening material returns for an intensely quiet conclusion. One last time the Alleluia is breathed out by the chorus and the orchestra brings matters to a cheerful close by inserting the major mode, a conclusion of overwhelming serenity and timelessness.
b. 25 August 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts; d. 14 October 1990 in New York, New York.
Chichester Psalms – for Mixed Chorus, Boy Solo and Orchestra. Premiere: July 15, 1965, conducted by Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic, the Camerata Singers, and John Bogart, alto, as part of an all-Bernstein concert at the orchestra’s French-American Festival.
The New York Philharmonic’s 1964-65 season brought music director Leonard Bernstein a much-needed sabbatical. Above all he yearned for time to compose. Twenty-one years previously, as the Philharmonic’s Assistant Conductor, he had substituted for Bruno Walter, without rehearsal, in a nationally broadcast concert and had turned his career on the podium into an immense success. In Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and other prolific composer/conductors, there is a sense of frustration, as composers are often obliged to earn their living from, and expend their energies on, the concert stage. Bernstein, who rarely succeeded in resolving this dilemma, continued to strive to find a satisfying way of balancing his conflicting talents – those that required him to be at home, composing versus those internal as well as external demands that compelled him onto the podium.
Chichester Psalms was Bernstein’s first composition after his Third Symphony, Kaddish, written in 1963. The work was commissioned for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals’ Festival at the Cathedral at Chichester, Sussex, England by the cathedral’s organist, John Birch, and the Dean, Walter Hussey. The first performance of the Chichester Psalms was to be given in the great cathedral at Chichester on July 31, 1965; however, Bernstein, eager to perform his new composition, asked permission to give the first performance in New York.
The Chichester Psalms are a compelling blend of Bernstein’s Broadway style with lyrical, intimate settings of three complete psalms in their original Hebrew, (nos. 100, 23, and 131) along with passages from three others (nos. 108, 2, and 133). His use of music that had been cut from West Side Story, as well as material he had composed for an incomplete musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth lends an overall mood of joyful exuberance alternating with moments of violent frenzy and tender entreaties for peace. To note, Bernstein explicitly states that the part for countertenor may be sung by either a countertenor or a boy soprano, but never by a woman. This reinforces the liturgical meaning and perhaps suggests that the 23rd Psalm was to be heard as if sung by the boy David, himself. The text is in Hebrew with no English translation provided in the score; it is clearly Bernstein’s intent that the work be performed in its original language, or not at all. Like many of Bernstein’s works, the Chichester Psalms significantly features the harp, requiring two intricate harp parts. Bernstein completed these before composing the accompanying orchestral and choral parts, thus granting the harpists a pivotal role in realizing the music. In rehearsals, Bernstein is noted to have requested that the harpists play through the piece before the rest of the orchestra to emphasize the importance of the harp’s role.
The opening declamatory passage, with the choir emphatically proclaiming “Awake, psaltery and harp!” (Psalm 108, verse 2), is music of celebration. The introduction quickly leads into Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” in an irresistibly joyous and jazzy dance rhythm in 7/4 time, combining the up-tempo choral writing with tremendous blasts in the orchestra featuring the percussion section. The first movement is often considered one of the hardest passages for choral tenors ever written, owing to the range of the piece, its rhythmic complexity and the consistent presence of the strange and difficult-to-maintain parallel 7ths between the tenor and bass parts. The interval figures prominently due to its numerological importance in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This interval also appears as a leitmotif in the soprano and alto parts consisting of a descending perfect fourth, ascending minor seventh, and descending perfect fifth. The significance of the passage conjures up images of tuning the harp and psaltery (especially the use of perfect fourths and fifths). The leitmotif is found elsewhere in the work, including the end of the first movement in “Ki tov Adonai”, the third movement prelude, and in the soprano part of the final a cappella section of movement three, with a haunting reintroduction of the material in the harp on unison G’s during the “Amen.”
The mood changes abruptly with the beginning of the second movement. The Twenty-third Psalm is a peaceful and pastoral solo for a solitary boy soprano accompanied only by a harp. With utmost simplicity, lacking any intense dramatic moments that would detract from the text, Bernstein specifies that it is to be sung “non-sentimentally.” Repeated by the women it is interrupted by a warlike outburst from the men. Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage?,” explodes furiously into this peaceful music accompanied by agitated percussion. The violence grows distant, but continues softly while above it the women resume Psalm 23 with an undercurrent of unease. Then again is heard the gentle voice of the shepherd serenely calling out above the tumult. The brief coda reminds us, in pianissimo, of the turmoil of Psalm 2 symbolizing mankind’s unending struggle with conflict and faith.
The beginning of the third movement is a tense and anxious instrumental interlude expressing angst and hopelessness as the strings call out an anguished cry to God. Melodies appear and disappear as they are pulled down by the tearing dissonance of the interlude. The voices of chaos begin to fade leaving an uneasy sense of peace with the male voices bringing the humble and serene setting of Psalm 131 “Lord, Lord, my heart is not proud, my eyes are not haughty.” The rest of the chorus joins in and the strains swell; mankind again seeks peace and harmony in God. This sense of peace is reconfirmed as the chorus continues with a sublimely gentle intonation of Psalm 133, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity,” Bernstein’s heartfelt response to the turbulence of the 1960s and the war in Vietnam.
Transparent harmonies eventually give way to a unison note on the last syllable of the text; an example of word painting, using the Hebrew word Yahad meaning “unity” or “as one.” This is the same note on which the choir sings the Amen, while a single muted trumpet plays the opening motif one last time and the orchestra ends in unison.
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