POWER PIANO PERCUSSION – January 25, 2014
Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34
(Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell)
Benjamin Britten 1913-1976
In 1946 Benjamin Britten was asked to supply music for an educational film Instruments of the Orchestra. Given his admiration for the music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era as well as one of the greatest English composers ever, Britten chose a stirring hornpipe from the incidental music to the play Abdelazar, or, the Moor’s Revenge.
After introducing the theme with the full orchestra, the four orchestral families – woodwinds, brass, strings and harp, and percussion – are introduced, each with a full variation on Purcell’s theme. There follow individual “portraits” of each instrument that captures the essence of its orchestral personality with very free variations, or mere fragments, on the theme. The cleverest and stunningly creative aspect of this piece is Britten’s enormous flexibility in the way he handles the old-fashioned variation idea. The piece concludes with a brilliant 14-voice orchestral fugue on the theme beginning with the piccolo, followed by each instrument or instrumental group in the order of their original solos. The fugue builds to a massive crescendo, at which point the original theme emerges, heralded by the horns and trombones.
Originally presented with a narrator explaining the proceedings, the Guide is now frequently presented without narrator as a concerto for orchestra. In the 1950s, George Balanchine choreographed it for the New York City Ballet under the title Fanfare; each dancer represented an instrument indicated by a large appliqué on his or her costume.
Burleske for Piano and orchestra, Op. 28
Richard Strauss came from an extremely conservative family. His father, Franz Joseph, was the principal horn player in the Munich Court Orchestra – a post he held for 49 years – who considered Brahms a radical and Wagner beyond the pale (although he played his music superbly.) The young Strauss was forbidden to listen to Wagner’s music and when, to the disgust of his father, he finally discovered it, he was overwhelmed. In trying to find his own voice Strauss assimilated the music of the late nineteenth century in his early works. He started composing as a committed classicist but soon discovered that the musical language taught by his father was too confining for his fertile mind.
In 1885 Strauss was appointed as assistant to famed conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, Director of the orchestra in Meiningen, a small city in central Germany with a large and progressive arts community. Strauss composed the Burleske (initially named Scherzo) for von Bülow, but von Bülow had other ideas: “There is a different hand position in every bar; do you think I am going to sit down for four weeks to study such an unruly piece?” (This is not the first instance of a famous soloist declaring a piece “unplayable” when it stretched his capabilities; another was the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.) Four years later, pianist Eugene D’Albert, who loved such technical challenges, premiered it with Strauss conducting.
Burleske is a grand waltz fantasy in the flamboyant style of Franz Liszt. Strauss uses this hectic dance for over-the-top orchestration, evocative tone painting and takeoffs on other composers. At the time, the composer was only 21 and had not yet developed his characteristic style for his slew of tone poems, but the “attitude,” as they say now, of the would-be hero and Don Juan is already apparent.
In addition to its numerous themes is a special part for solo timpani that serves as a motto, or refrain, throughout the entire piece. After the timpani fanfare, the orchestra brings in the first theme, which imitates the rhythm of a “ha-ha-ha” laugh. The soloist enters immediately afterwards with a flourish of descending chromatic scales escalating the laughter to sheer hilarity. A little Viennese waltz follows, then a workout à la Liszt and a few moments of nocturnal respite à la Chopin.
After he has thoroughly worn out the pianist, Strauss refuses to end the piece, spinning it out for five extra minutes with false endings and forcing the pianist to play several fiendishly difficult cadenzas – which he calls “quasi cadenzas.” He finishes off the second of them with a quote of the Wagner’s famous “Tristan chord” (just to get at his father?) The ending calls to mind the end of T. S. Elliot’s poem, The Hollow Men:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
La noche de los Mayas
Mexican composer, conductor and violinist Silvestre Revueltas was mostly self-taught, using the modern Mexican street music as his model. In his early works he incorporated traditional Indian music and popular folk tunes into loosely structured, highly rhythmic compositions, giving him a reputation as a “Mexican Charles Ives.” Later he adopted a more dissonant style, experimenting with serialism and tone clusters. His works are mostly concise, with an intense rhythmic drive.
Revueltas began his musical career as a violinist and conductor in Texas and Alabama. In 1929 he became assistant to famed Mexican composer and conductor Carlos Chávez, the conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Mexico. In 1937 Revueltas traveled to Spain, assisting and advising the loyalists and composing some marches and fanfares for their cause. He returned to Mexico City and died there of alcoholism and pneumonia at age 40.
In 1939 Revueltas composed the music for the film La noche de los Mayas, filmed on location amidst the jungles of Yucatan and the ancient Mayan ruins of Mexico. The plot concerns a contemporary white man, who stumbles upon a tribe of people living exactly in the manner of their Mayan ancestors. He witnesses a fascinating romantic drama in which a huntsman Uz, falls in love with Lol by means of the intervention of "apprentice witch" Zeb. The community holds the lovers responsible for the local drought, Zeb is burned at the stake and a tragic denouement also awaits Uz and Lol. Revueltas created a fantastic sound world that reflected his vision of the Maya world.
In 1960, composer and conductor José Yves Limantour arranged a four-movement suite from the film score:
- La noche de los Mayas (Night of the Mayas): This movement introduces a theme generally associated with the Mayan community that recurs in the final movement. Written in sonata form, it also contains a contrasting second theme for solo flute.
- La noche de Jaranas (Night of Revelry): In a sharp change of pace, Revueltas turns to the popular dance rhythms of Mexico.
- La noche de Yucatàn (Yucatan Night): This is a romantic interlude featuring solos and duets for the upper woodwinds.
- La noche de encantamiento (Night of Enchantment): After a return to the “Maya” motive, this, the longest movement of the Suite, builds to a frenzy of rhythm with fiery section solos for the percussions.
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn