Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Gershwin, Grieg, and Vivaldi

In addition to Pierre Jalbert's commissioned piece, "Autumn Rhapsody," the Made in Vermont Music Festival program features three other works for string orchestra.


George Gershwin (1898-1937)

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn and died in Hollywood. In the 1920s, hardly anyone had heard of his contemporary, Aaron Copland, but Gershwin was already famous. His musical career began at age 16 as a "song plugger" for J.H. Remick & Co. He was a clever pianist, and though his background was mainly popular, he knew and loved classical music as well. Working his way up on Tin Pan Alley, he became the toast of Broadway, writing hit songs and even shows. His personal idiom put an indelible stamp on the course of American music. Gershwin's harmony teacher, Rubin Goldmark, was not impressed with his pupil's early efforts. In 1919, in an effort to placate him, Gershwin presented Goldmark with the score to a string quartet entitled "Lullaby." "You are finally making some progress," said Goldmark.

Holberg Suite, Op. 40

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

The Encyclopedia Britannica (1952) article on Ludwig Holberg states:

Holberg (1684-1754) found Denmark provided with no books, and he wrote a library for her. When he arrived in the country, [from Norway] the Danish language was never heard in a gentleman's house. Polite Danes were wont to say that a man wrote Latin to his friends, talked French to the ladies, called his dogs in German, and only used Danish to swear at his servants. The single genius of Holberg revolutionized this system. He wrote poems of all kinds in a language hitherto employed only for ballads and hymns; he instituted a theatre and composed a rich collection of comedies for it; he filled the shelves of the citizens with works in their own tongue on history, law, politics, science, philology and philosophy, all representing the extreme attainment of European culture at the moment.

Well! At first blush, it would seem paradoxical to have Grieg, a musical miniaturist at heart, trying to write a work in honor of such a gigantic literary figure. A closer look shows that the heart and style of each are a perfect match. Grieg is certainly as much the wellspring of Norwegian national music as Holberg is the seminal figure of Danish literature. Both reflected a French connection: Holberg's Danish comedies of manners were influenced by those of Moliere, and Grieg's static impressionist harmonies were certainly sympathetic to French trends. (Debussy remarked of Grieg's creations: "One has in one's mouth the novel and charming taste of a pink sweet stuffed with snow.")

The suited entitled "From Holberg's Time" was first written for piano in 1884 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Holberg's birth. Comparatively few of Grieg's works were conceived for full orchestra, and only the Piano Concerto and the Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 are heard with any regularity. His lush works for string orchestra are transcriptions of piano and vocal pieces, and the Holberg Suite is no exception. Grieg's painstaking labor to translate the music from piano to string technique is seamless. The finished product serves as evidence that Grieg felt quite comfortable exploring the richness of sound and color provided by a string ensemble. His transcriptions feature multiple part-writing, especially in the violins, and melodies in octaves.

As the original title of the suite might indicate, the work is neo-classical in quality, and recalls the sequence of dances characteristic of the Baroque suite. The customary gigue finale is replaced by a rigaudon, and the allemande and courante are omitted.

--Hilary Hatch

The Four Seasons, Op. 8 Nos. 1-4

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Vivaldi was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1703 and earned the nickname “The Red Priest” owing to his carrot-colored hair and preference for red robes. A vivid image in his personal aspect, he was no less a creator of musical imagery, and in the pure sense was one of the earliest composers of program music.

It was not until later, early in the 19th century, that composers began to promote their creations as abstract ideas and intellectual artistic efforts completely independent of text or concrete references. Vivaldi, on the other hand, enjoyed being a story teller, and many of his 454 concertos have titles to them. The Four Seasons is drawn from twelve concertos of his Opus 8, published in Amsterdam around 1725 under the title “The Conflict between Harmony and Invention.” This reflects a certain bridling of the story teller by the conventions of harmony: as David Johnson puts it, “Harmony wishes to be a simple F minor scale; invention wishes that scale to be a man slipping on the ice.”

The Four Seasons was fully annotated by Vivaldi, with a descriptive sonnet attached to each concerto. The musicians’ parts even have a pertinent phrase marked here and there: “gnats and flies” or “the barking dog,” for example.

Spring (La Primavera)

Allegro. Spring has come and, rejoicing, the birds greet it with happy song. [Three violins imitate bird calls.] The streams softly murmur to the wafting of gentle breezes. But the sky suddenly grows black; lightning and thunder speak out. Peace is restored and the little birds continue their sweet singing.

Largo. Here in the pleasant, flowering meadow, the goatherd slumbers, lulled by the rustling leaves, his faithful dog by his side. [Solo violin represents the sleeping goatherd; first and second violins the leaves; and violas the dog, barking two notes to the measure.]

Allegro. Nymphs and shepherds dance to the festive sound of a rustic musette under the bright sky of spring.

Summer (L’estate)

Allegro non molto; Allegro. Man, sheep, and tree droop under the mid-day sun of the pitiless season. The cuckoo unleashes its note, and soon the songs of turtle dove and goldfinch are heard. [Solo violin.] Soft zephyrs fan the air, but a querulous north wind usurps their place. The shepherd, alarmed by the rough blustering, weeps. [A sense of complete enervation is conveyed, and the weeping of the shepherd heard in the solo violin continues into the next movement.]

Adagio. His weary limbs can find rest neither from fearful lightning and thunder nor from the angry swarms of gnats and flies. [One hears the buzz of insects and the rumble of thunder.]

Presto. Ah! His fears are only too prophetic: storm and pelting hail cut down the growing sheaves of wheat. [In the midst of the storm, the solo violin reflects great agitation.]

Autumn (L’autunno)

Allegro. The peasant celebrates the happy harvest time with dances and songs. Many, warmed by the wine of Bacchus, end their merry-making with slumber. [The solo violin portrays the vain attempts of the drunkard to maintain equilibrium, at last collapsing in sleep—a sudden Larghetto.]

Adagio molto. Everyone leaves off dancing and singing. The mild air is pleasing. This is the season that invites all alike to slumber to their heart’s content.

Allegro. At break of day the hunters go forth with horns, weapons, and hounds; their prey flees and they follow his tracks. [Strings play the horn calls in fourths and thirds.] The beast, terrified by the sound of guns and hounds, endangered by his wounds, seeks to escape, but is overcome and dies. [The soloist portrays the thwarted flight of the quarry and its death.]

Winter (L’inverno)

Allegro non molto. To tremble, frozen amidst the icy snow; to breathe the sharp and wild wind; to run, stamping one’s feet for warmth; to have the teeth set a-chatter by all-conquering cold…. [Solo violin depicts the wind in rapid arpeggios and scales; vigorous chords the stamping feet; and a passage of 32 notes to each bar represents the chattering of teeth.]

Largo. To pass one’s days quietly and contentedly by the fireside while the rain without [pizzicato strings] soaks all passers-by….

Allegro. To walk on the ice, stepping slowly and peering carefully from side to side for fear of falling; to twirl about gaily, to slide, to fall down; to get up again and run across the ice so fearlessly that the ice begins to rumble an crack; to hear Sirroco and Boreas and all the winds howling as in battle: this is winter and it has its joys. [With one safe indoors, the wild winds and treachery of the ice seem to lose their threat and become wonders of nature’s power and variety.]

--Hilary Hatch