2015-2016 Subscription Series April 9 and 10, 2016 Program Notes By Dr. Richard E. Rodda BRIGHT BLUE MUSIC (1985) Michael Torke (born in 1961) Composers since the age of the Renaissance have incorporated popular songs and styles into works of elevated purpose: students of music history will recall the profusion of Masses erected upon the 15th-century French ditty L’Homme armé (“The Armed Man”); Bach wove two popular melodies of the day (Long Have I Been Away from Thee and Cabbage and Turnips) into the contrapuntal complexities of the Goldberg Variations; Chopin’s peerless piano creations are rooted in the dance patterns and melodic gestures of his native Poland; jazz and the blues have served as a wellspring for American composers ever since Copland returned from France in 1924. For all of their creative hybridization, however, these earlier attempts at stylistic interpenetration recognized distinct boundaries among the various types of music — the Rhapsody in Blue is clearly intended for the concert hall and not the jazz club. However, as this new millennium begins the conventional distinctions among musical idioms have blurred. The world is now so suffused with music — rock, pop, rap, punk, folk, metal, jazz, new age, soul, and even the venerable forms of symphony, opera and ballet — that the old melting pot has become a veritable cauldron of trans-stylistic musical immersion. Many of today’s young composers and performers are not only inevitably exposed to this invigorating universe of musics, but can move comfortably and creatively from one to another, drawing from them a crossfertilized inspiration that defies traditional categorization. Michael Torke is among the lead guides along this musical pathway into the new century. Michael Torke (TOR-kee) was born in Milwaukee on September 22, 1961. His parents enjoyed music, but they were not trained in the field, so they entrusted Michael to a local piano teacher when he early showed musical talent. He soon started making up his own pieces, and by age nine he was taking formal composition lessons. His skills as a pianist and composer blossomed while he was in high school, and he chose to take his professional training at the Eastman School in Rochester, where he studied with Joseph Schwantner and
Christopher Rouse. Though he had surprisingly little familiarity with popular idioms before entering Eastman in 1980, Torke absorbed all manners of music from the students and faculty at the school, coming to realize that he could make pop, rock and jazz coexist with the “classical” idioms in his music. His distinctive style was already well formed in Vanada, which he composed for a student ensemble at Eastman in 1984, his last year at the school. He spent a year at the Yale School of Music as a student of Jacob Druckman before moving to New York City, where his practice of submitting scores to every available competition had already made his name known to a number of contemporary music buffs. (He has won the American Prix de Rome and grants and prizes from the Koussevitzky Foundation, ASCAP, BMI and the American Academy & Institute of Arts and Letters.) A commission from the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1985 resulted in Ecstatic Orange, his first orchestral score and one of his many works influenced by his drawing relations between color and sound. That same year his music was taken on by the prestigious publishing firm of Boosey & Hawkes, who introduced him to Peter Martins, director of the New York City Ballet. Martins was immediately struck by the freshness and vitality of Torke’s work, and choreographed Ecstatic Orange in 1987; the company has since commissioned and premiered Purple (1987), Black & White (1988), Slate (1989), Mass (1990) and Ash (1991). In 1990, Torke received a first-refusal contract for all of his compositions from Decca/London Records, the first such agreement that that company had offered since its association with Benjamin Britten; in 2003, he launched his own label, Ecstatic Records. Torke now has more requests for commissions than he can accept, and he is one of only a handful of American composers supporting themselves entirely through the income from their compositions. He writes mainly for orchestra, sometimes with an added soloist or concertante group, and the list of ensembles that have performed his music includes the orchestras of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York, Danish Radio Symphony, Munich Philharmonic, London Sinfonietta and Ensemble InterContemporain. In 1997, Torke was appointed the first Associate Composer of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, in which capacity he has advised on programming and educational activities and composed Rapture, a concerto for Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, and the tone poem An American Abroad. In 1999, Torke premiered two large-scale, high-profile pieces: Strawberry Fields, a one-act opera jointly commissioned by Glimmerglass Opera, New York City Opera and WNET’s “Great Performances” television
program (PBS), made its debut at Glimmerglass in Cooperstown, New York; and Four Seasons, a 62-minute symphonic oratorio for vocal soloists, two choruses and large orchestra commissioned by the Disney Company in celebration of the new millennium, was introduced by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. His recent projects include the opera Pop-pea, a rock version of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, premiered at the Châtelet Theater in Paris in May 2012. Bright Blue Music, like Torke’s other compositions, depends on his fine craftsmanship and carefully honed skills to create music that seems effortless and inevitable. There is youthful excitement and joy of life here, a sense of discovery and renewal and energy and even fun that invigorate the listener and stay laser-etched in the memory, qualities which may have come to permeate the work, in part, in response to the source of its commission — the New York Youth Symphony, which gave its premiere at Carnegie Hall under conductor David Alan Miller on November 23, 1985. The piece is firmly and consonantly rooted throughout in the key of D, which Torke claims to have associated with the color blue since he was five years old, and achieves a spaciousness and extroversion that may evoke vast expanses of cloudless sky.
VIOLIN CONCERTO IN D MAJOR, Op. 35 (1878) Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) In the summer of 1877, Tchaikovsky undertook the disastrous marriage that lasted less than three weeks and resulted in his emotional collapse and attempted suicide. He fled from Moscow to his brother Modeste in St. Petersburg, where he recovered his wits and discovered that he could find solace in his work. He spent the late fall and winter completing his Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onégin. The brothers decided that travel outside of Russia would be an additional balm to the composer’s spirit, and they duly installed themselves at Clarens on Lake Geneva in Switzerland soon after the first of the year. In Clarens, Tchaikovsky had already begun work on a piano sonata when he was visited by Joseph Kotek, a talented young violinist who had been a student in one of his composition classes at the Moscow Conservatory, who brought with him a score for the recent Symphonie Espagnole for Violin and Orchestra by the French composer Edouard Lalo. They read through the piece, and Tchaikovsky was so excited by the possibilities of a
work for solo violin and orchestra that he set aside the gestating piano sonata and immediately began a concerto of his own. He worked quickly, completing the present slow movement in a single day when he decided to discard an earlier attempt. (This abandoned piece ended up as the first of the three Meditations for Violin and Piano, Op. 42.) By the end of April, the Concerto was finished. Tchaikovsky sent the manuscript to Leopold Auer, a friend who headed the violin department at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and who was also Court Violinist to the Czar, hoping to have him premiere the work. Much to the composer’s regret, Auer returned the piece as “unplayable,” and apparently spread that word with such authority to other violinists that it was more than three years before the Violin Concerto was heard in public. It was Adolf Brodsky, a former colleague of Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, who first accepted the challenge of this Concerto. After having “taken it up and put it down,” in his words, for two years, he finally felt secure enough to give the work a try, and he convinced Hans Richter to include it on the concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1881. Brodsky must have felt that he was on something of a crusade during the preparations for the performance. There was only a single full rehearsal allotted for the new work, and most of that was taken up with correcting the parts, which were awash with copyist’s errors. Richter wanted to make cuts. The orchestra did not like the music, and at the performance played very quietly so as not to enter with a crashing miscue. Brodsky deserves the appreciation of the music world for standing pat in his belief in the Concerto amid all these adversities. When the performance was done, the audience felt that way as well, and applauded him. The piece itself, however, was roundly hissed. The critical barrage was led by that powerful doyen of Viennese conservatism, Eduard Hanslick, whose tasteless summation (“Music that stinks in the ear”) irritated Tchaikovsky until the day he died. Despite its initial reception, Brodsky remained devoted to the Concerto, and he played it throughout Europe. The work soon began to gain in popularity, as did the music of Tchaikovsky generally, and it has become one of the most famous concertos in the literature. It is a revealing side-note that Leopold Auer, who had initially shunned the work, eventually came to include it in his repertory, and even taught it to his students, some of whom — Seidel, Zimbalist, Elman, Heifetz, Milstein — became its greatest exponents in the 20th century. The Concerto opens quietly with a tentative introductory tune. A foretaste of the main
theme soon appears in the violins, around which a quick crescendo is mounted to usher in the soloist. After a few unaccompanied measures, the violin presents the movement’s lovely main theme above a simple string background. After an elaborated repetition of this melody, a transition follows that eventually involves the entire orchestra and gives the soloist the first of many opportunities for pyrotechnical display. The second theme is the beginning of a long dynamic and rhythmic buildup that leads into the development with a sweeping, balletic presentation of the main theme by the full orchestra. The soloist soon steals back the attention with breathtaking leaps and double stops. The grand balletic mood returns, giving way to a brilliant cadenza as a link to the recapitulation. The flute sings the main theme for four measures before the violin takes it over, and all then follows the order of the exposition. An exhilarating coda asks for no fewer than four tempo increases, and the movement ends in a brilliant whirl of rhythmic energy. The slow middle movement begins with a chorale for woodwinds that is heard again at the end of the movement to serve as a frame around the musical picture inside. On the canvas of this scene is displayed a soulful melody intoned by the violin with the plaintive suggestion of a Gypsy fiddler. The finale is joined to the slow movement without a break. With the propulsive spirit of a dashing Cossack trepak, the finale flies by amid the soloist’s dizzying show of agility and speed. Like the first movement, this one also races toward its final climax, almost daring listeners to try to sit still in their seats. After playing the Concerto’s premiere, Adolf Brodsky wrote to Tchaikovsky that the work was “wonderfully beautiful.” He was right.
“FOUR SEA INTERLUDES” FROM PETER GRIMES, Op. 33a (1944-1945) Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Peter Grimes, one of the most characteristically English of all operas, was born in California. Benjamin Britten had followed his friend the poet W.H. Auden to the United States in 1939 both to find greater artistic freedom and to escape the frustration and depression of the European political situation. Britten was also an avowed pacifist, and he probably viewed the American sojourn as a time when he could sort out his feelings and decide on what his stance should be as his country headed inexorably into war. He lived for several months with Auden in a Brooklyn apartment, but had to leave because the ceaseless commotion of visitors made concentration impossible. He moved into a private home in Amityville, Long Island, and composed no fewer than six major scores over the
three years of his American visit, including the Violin Concerto, Les Illuminations and Sinfonia da Requiem. It was during a holiday in California in summer 1941 that he chanced upon a back issue of The Listener, the periodical of the British Broadcasting Corporation, which contained an article by E.M. Forster on the poet George Crabbe (1755-1823). The article led Britten to Crabbe’s poem The Borough, which dealt with the rugged life in the fishing villages of the region in Suffolk in which the composer had grown up. Overwhelmed by homesickness, he wrote, “I suddenly realized where I belonged and what I lacked. I had become without roots.” The seed for Peter Grimes had been sown. On January 2, 1942, Britten was in Boston for a performance of his new Sinfonia da Requiem. Sergei Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, inquiring about the composer’s plans, asked him if he were considering writing an opera. Britten said he was, that he even had a subject in mind, but that it was financially impossible for him to set aside the time required. Koussevitzky, who had established a foundation to commission new musical works in memory of his late wife, Natalie, assured Britten that the Foundation would help subsidize the composition, so when Britten was finally able to book passage to England that spring he had a firm commission in hand. Shortly after his return home, Britten appeared before the Tribunal of Conscientious Objectors and was exempted from active military service. Instead, he performed in hospitals, shelters and bombed-out villages while he continued to compose during those difficult years. As for Grimes, Montagu Slater was engaged to write the libretto and worked on it from June 1942 until the end of the following year. Britten had already established the personality of the protagonist before he left America, a process in which his personal situation played no small part: “A central feeling was that of the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for my own situation. As a conscientious objector I was out of it. I couldn’t say I suffered physically, but naturally I experienced tremendous tension. I think it was partly this feeling which led me to make Grimes a character of vision and conflict, the tortured idealist he is, rather than the villain he was in Crabbe.” Britten began work as soon as the libretto was completed. Since his home village on the east coast of England was still in danger of air attack, he carried the manuscript pages of his opera with him whenever he was out so that he could save them from being burned, should the village be bombed.
Peter Grimes was put into rehearsal by the Sadler’s Wells Company early in 1945, with its premiere planned for the return of that organization to its own auditorium, which had been bombed in 1942. The date was set for June 7th. The announcement of the production generated tremendous excitement, not only because of the resurrection of the venerable Sadler’s Wells, but also because it marked the premiere of the first important British opera in many years. The opening night was a triumph, and established Britten as one of the most important modern composers. Michael Kennedy, among others, cited the premiere of Peter Grimes as the most momentous event in British music since the presentation of Elgar’s Enigma Variations in 1899. “A milestone in modern opera,” said The New York Times. The American writer Edmund Wilson reflected on the Sadler’s Wells performance, “The opera seizes you, possesses you, keeps you riveted to your seat during the action and keyed up during the intermissions, and drops you, purged and exhausted, at the end.” Part of the reason for the success of Grimes was Britten’s empathy with his subject. “For most of my life I have lived closely in touch with the sea,” he wrote. “My parents’ house directly faced the sea, and my life as a child was colored by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships on our coast and ate away whole stretches of neighboring cliffs. In writing Peter Grimes, I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea — difficult though it is to treat such a universal subject in theatrical form.” The brilliant insight and musical power with which he delineated the story on the stage carries over into the concert music derived from it, the Four Sea Interludes. (A fifth excerpt, the Passacaglia, is sometimes performed with the Interludes.) The Interludes, played with the curtain down in the opera house, are used to preface the action of each act and link together its two scenes. In the words of Britten’s first biographer, Eric Walter White, “The main purpose of these Interludes is to serve as impressionist and expressionist introductions to the realistic scenes of the opera.” The story of the opera deals with Grimes’ relationship to his community. Grimes, a fisherman, has had one apprentice die under suspicious circumstances, and, though a court trial has officially cleared him of guilt, the rumors in the village continue. One of the few who support him is the schoolmistress, Ellen Orford, and Grimes believes all will be well if he could only marry her. Grimes takes another apprentice and, despite Ellen’s pleadings, treats the boy roughly. The villagers decide to take the law into their own hands, and their march on Peter’s shack produces such excitement that the boy, in running to assess the
trouble, slips over the cliff to his death. Balstrode, Grimes’ only other friend, arrives ahead of the mob, and advises Peter to sail his boat into the sea and scuttle it, taking his secrets and his unhappiness to a watery grave. The Four Sea Interludes not only set the moods for the scenes to follow, but also reveal the conflicts and motivations of the characters. The first, “Dawn,” describes the somber atmosphere of the little fishing village at daybreak as the men begin their day’s work. Its craggy sonority also suggests the harsh, continuing struggle of the villagers against the forbidding natural forces that shape their world. “Dawn” comprises only two musical elements: one, a bleak melody high in violins and flutes punctuated by swift arpeggios from harp, clarinet, and viola, like a sudden glint of sunlight off a grey wave; the other, slow, hard chords from the brass. The second Interlude, “Sunday Morning,” portrays, with a certain sullen numbness, the call to worship on the day of rest. Church bells, large and small, echo through the town. Three times the sweeping arch of Ellen’s song (“Glitter of waves and glitter of sunlight”), a broad theme begun by violas and cellos, soars above this background tintinnabulation. The third Interlude, “Moonlight,” paints the scene of the village at night with music of troubled restlessness. Edward Downes wrote, “[It] suggests anything but a glamorous moonlit scene. The mood is lonely, brooding and stark, as if the moon could only emphasize the surrounding blackness.” The closing “Storm” describes not only the frightening wind and waves crashing upon the shore, but also the tempest raging in Peter’s troubled soul. The tumult of the storm slackens three times near the end of the movement to admit Peter’s arching melody, “What harbour shelters peace? ... What harbour can embrace terrors and tragedies?” This music, rather the eye of the hurricane than the passing of the tempest, is, like Peter’s life, soon swept away by the unhearing ocean. In his discussion of this masterwork of 20th-century opera, Milton Cross noted, “This grim and relentless tragedy evoked from Britten music of overwhelming power. The stark fatalism is echoed in a score that is high-tensioned, realistic, surging with dramatic force, yet combined with passages that are poetic, sensitive, even tender.”
LA MER, TROIS ESQUISSES SYMPHONIQUES (“THE SEA, THREE SYMPHONIC SKETCHES”) (1903-1905) Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
“You may not know that I was destined for a sailor’s life and that it was only quite by chance that fate led me in another direction. But I have always held a passionate love for the sea.” With these lines written on September 12, 1903 to the composer-conductor André Messager, Debussy prefaced the notice that he had begun work on La Mer. Debussy’s father was a sailor and his tales of vast oceans and exotic lands held Claude spellbound as a boy. A family trip to Cannes when he was seven years old was Claude’s first experience of the sea, and it ignited his life-long fascination with the thoughts and moods evoked by moving water. Twenty years later, in 1889, he discovered an aspect of the sea very different from the placid one he had seen on the resort beaches of the Mediterranean. In early June of that year, he was traveling with friends along the coast of Brittany. Their plans called for passage in a fishing boat from Saint-Lunaire to Cancale, but at the time they were scheduled to leave a threatening storm was approaching and the captain advised canceling the trip. Debussy insisted that they sail. It turned out to be a dramatic, storm-tossed voyage with no little danger to crew and passengers. Debussy relished it. “Now there’s a type of passionate feeling that I have not before experienced — Danger! It is not unpleasant. One is alive!” he declared. These early experiences of the sea — one halcyon, the other threatening — were to be captured years later in La Mer. Debussy began work on La Mer in the summer of 1903 at the vacation house of his inlaws at Bichain in the Burgundian countryside, far from the coast. To André Messager he wrote a rather startling explanation for this geographical curiosity: “You will say that the ocean does not exactly wash the Burgundian hillsides — and my seascapes might be studio landscapes; but I have an endless store of memories and, to my mind, they are worth more than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought.” At another time he claimed that “the sight of the sea itself fascinated me to such a degree that it paralyzed my creative faculties.” In addition to the memories of his own direct experience of the ocean, Debussy brought to La Mer a sensitivity nourished by his fascination with visual renderings of the sea. He was certainly in sympathy with the Impressionistic art of his French contemporaries, but more immediate inspiration for this particular work seems to have come from the creations of two foreign artists — the Englishman Turner, whom Debussy called “the finest creator of mystery in art,” and the Japanese Hokusai. A selection of Turner’s wondrous, swirling sea paintings, as much color and light as image, had been shown in Paris in 1894 and were probably seen there by Debussy. Eight years later, during the 1902-1903 Turner
exhibit at London’s National Gallery, Debussy again sought out these brilliant canvases, and this visit may have been the catalyst for creating La Mer. (A half century before Debussy, Turner experienced the violence of the sea first-hand when he had himself lashed to a ship’s mast during a furious storm just to see what it was like.) Japanese sea- and landscapes were popular in Paris during the 1890s as a result of their introduction there at the Universal Exhibition of 1889, whose most famous souvenir is the Eiffel Tower. The exquisite drawings of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) so pleased Debussy that he chose one of them, The Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa, to grace the cover of the full score of La Mer. Debussy was never a fast worker in his large compositions, and La Mer was some two years in the making. It was written largely in Paris and other land-locked locales, but the finishing touches were applied (at 6:00 p.m. on March 5, 1905, according to the manuscript) at the fashionable English seaside resort of Eastbourne. “The sea rolls with a wholly British correctness,” he observed. “There is a lawn combed and brushed on which little bits of important and imperialistic England frolic. But what a place to work! No noise, no pianos, except for the delicious mechanical pianos; no musicians talking about painting, no painters discussing music. In short, a pretty place to cultivate egoism.” The premiere had been offered to Camille Chevillard and the Concerts Lamoureux almost a year before the work was finished, and a date for the first performance was set in the fall of 1905. When the orchestra received the parts, they were found to have been poorly proof-read and were aglare with mistakes. Chevillard complained also of the difficulty of the new piece, but Debussy was reluctant to withdraw the work from him and give it to the superior Concerts Colonne lest he create a row. The composer did not get much support from the Lamoureux players, either. Stravinsky recalled Debussy telling him, “The violinists flagged the tips of their bows with handkerchiefs at the rehearsals, as a sign of ridicule and protest.” It is little wonder that the premiere on October 15, 1905 was a lackluster occasion which created little stir in the Parisian musical community. If the uninspired performance by Chevillard was not enough to dampen the success of the premiere, Paris also seems to have been repaying Debussy for what it considered the moral outrage of abandoning his first wife, Rosalie Texier, the previous year for Emma Bardac, a gifted amateur singer and the wife of a noted financier as well as the former mistress of Gabriel Fauré. The rumors that his affection had been bought by a woman of wealth still
circulated when La Mer was given, and Louis Laloy said that the premiere’s success was clouded because “prudish indignation had not yet been appeased, and on all sides people were ready to make the artist pay dearly for the wrongs that were imputed to the man.” La Mer created considerably more stir when the composer conducted it at the Concerts Colonne on January 19, 1908. The cheers and applause of the composer’s supporters mingled with the hisses and catcalls of the anti-Debussyists for a quarter of an hour before the violinist Jacques Thibaud could begin the Bach Chaconne as the next piece on the program. A performance of La Mer in London a fortnight later was greeted with enthusiasm, and the work has remained steadily in the orchestral repertory ever since as one of the great masterpieces of the early 20th century. La Mer marked an important advance in Debussy’s style of composition. “Without in any way abandoning the delicate sensitivity of his earlier works (creating delightful impressionistic pictures out of atmospheric vibrations) which is perhaps unequaled in the world of art, his style has today become more concise, definite, positive, complete, in a word, classical,” wrote Louis Laloy after hearing the work at its premiere. The three movements of La Mer, despite their modest subtitle of “symphonic sketches,” are carefully integrated to form a single, unified composition, unlike the trio of independent musical essays which constitutes the Nocturnes, completed six years before. There is a certain technical and structural validity in David Cox’s assertion that La Mer is “the best symphony ever written by a Frenchman.” This is, however, a symphony in the modern, expanded sense, which “lacks those fixed points which can be recognized in the description of the traditional symphony and to which can be related details of departure from, as well as conformity with, the familiar patterns. It is not feasible to refer to tonalities, since there is a kind of incessant modulation. To attempt to particularize thematic material is also futile, because of equally incessant transformations,” assessed Oscar Thompson in his study of the composer. It is just this ineffable balancing of traditional with innovative qualities that makes the music of Debussy continually fascinating. The opening movement is titled De l’aube à midi sur la mer (“From Dawn to Noon on the Sea”). Its form, built around the play of thematic and rhythmic fragments rather than conventional melodies, is perfectly suited to expressing the changing reflections of the morning sun in the air, clouds and water. Though Erik Satie quipped that he liked the part at quarter to eleven the best, there is no specific program in this music other than a general
progression from the mysterious opening of first light to the full blaze of the noon sun shining in the luminous brass chorale at the movement’s end. Jeux de vagues (“The Play of the Waves”) is a brilliant essay in orchestral color, woven and contrasted with the utmost evocative subtlety. “The sea has been very good to me,” wrote Debussy shortly before finishing La Mer. “She has shown me all her moods.” Many of them found their way into this piece. The finale, Dialogue du vent et de la mer (“Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea”), reflects the awesome power of the sea as well as its majesty. Lines from a letter that Debussy wrote in 1915 seem an appropriate complement to this music: “Trees are good friends, better than the ocean, which is in motion, wishing to trespass on the land, bite the rocks, with the anger of a little girl — singular for a person of its importance. One would understand it if it sent the vessels about their business as if they were only disturbing vermin.” Fragments of themes from the first movement are recalled in the finale to round out this magnificent tonal panorama by a composer who believed that “[Music] is a free art, gushing forth — an open-air art, an art boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea!”