Program Notes | Ballet Pantomime

These notes appear in the program for Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra’s concert on Saturday, April 21, 2018, 7:30 PM at the Schrott Center for the Arts, Butler Arts Center.

Concert features:
ICO Principal Viola Csaba Erdélyi as soloist for the world premiere Viola Concerto by James Aikman, The Spider’s Feast by Albert Roussel and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Richard Strauss.

James Aikman

Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra (2018) [World Premiere] James Aikman, born April 15, 1959, in Indianapolis.  Composed for ICO Principal Violist Csaba Erdélyi Commissioned by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra

James Aikman provided the following notes for his new viola concerto:

Prelude: A Palindrome (comprised of five sections).
The opening begins on one note, G below middle C. Special effects and nuances — three different types of wind chimes, a bell tree, large Chinese gong, glissando, the “seagull” effect in lower strings, etc. — ensue while the piece evolves slowly, departing from the single unison pitch. This misterioso musical atmosphere gives way to ascending harmonic and melodic motion, leading to a climactic conclusion of the opening section, punctuated by the timpani and low strings, introducing the lower register for the first time.

From this, a motivic viola theme based on tetrachords gains momentum and is used for both the melodic and harmonic aspect. A driving, motor rhythm in various compound meters prevails. This section features the solo viola with the string choir playing sonorities drawn from the notes of the viola’s melodic line. Sparkling marimba, harp, and solo wind lines appear, which echo and enhance the predominating strings’ texture. Distant drums can be heard driving the piece forward as well. This culminates in an arrival which is noted by brass and winds’ entering and taking over from the highest ascent of the viola, a harmonic partial it reaches, which leads into the next section.

The interior section appears with an initially more delicate, almost chamber music texture as happens in baroque concerto grossi. I’ve always loved Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti and Handel’s many concertos. (Pick up a recording by Orpheus Chamber Ensemble of Handel’s Concertos and you’ll see what I mean!) Within this interior section of my viola concerto, oboe, clarinet, and trumpet, as well as other instruments, are featured in lines which sail over a 16th-note pattern built in two parts, much like a Bach subject, though it sounds very little like Bach. It is rhythmically galvanic as in Bach, though more complex. The intensity and multiple layers in varying juxtaposed meters also include references to be-bop and Stravinsky, though not intentional, only acknowledged upon analysis. Interplay between the solo clarinet and viola closes this section, where the bell tree becomes an eliding cadence.

The fourth section is a slightly altered restatement of the second section, which again features the solo viola and strings with decor from marimba, harp and solo winds leading to the brass and full winds concluding cadential material.

Then, after the viola states its final motto theme, echoing the ominous trumpet motive, the strings return to similar material from the very opening bars, enhanced by the various wind chimes and bell tree chimings, this time followed in canonic interplay by the flutes and clarinet, which carry the Prelude to its close, thus an overall five-part palindromic formal scheme.

Serenade
This lyrical, elegiac movement is through-composed and features the singing tone of the viola. The form has subtle repetitions, all with a constant quarternote accompaniment. This leads to the climax, after which a brief remembrance of the opening melody closes the work by ascending to the highest possible registers and out of audibility. Not unlike an “homage in memoriam” that I composed several years ago — in fact it was the template — this piece contemplates a subject we often evade.

Danse
The Danse closes the concerto. After boldly daunting opening motives stated by the orchestra introduce the Danse, an uplifting, fast-paced, melodic, rhythmically-driving musical concept propels the piece throughout. Sections recur leading to the finale, where the solo viola trades virtuosic lines with the clarinet and strings, while ending on an extended pedal point, a brief nod to the classical music of India.

 

Le Festin de l’Araignée (The Spider’s Feast), Op. 17: Symphonic Suite for Orchestra
Albert Roussel, born April 5, 1869, in Tourcoing, France; died August 23, 1937, in Royan, France.

Albert Roussel

Albert Roussel’s life began in hard circumstances – he was just a year old when his father died of consumption (now known as tuberculosis) and he was orphaned when his mother died just seven years later. He lived with his grandfather, who was also the Mayor of Tourcoing. When his grandfather died three years after that, he was cared for by his maternal aunt. She and her husband recognized his skill in music and arranged for lessons with the organist at their church. Albert’s health was a constant concern, and the couple took him away from the industrial town for weeks at a time to a seaside resort in Belgium. Here he read Jules Verne stories and interacted with the sailors, and he developed a desire to go to sea. He excelled at his college classes, but left to join the Navy at the age of 18. He was eventually assigned to the battleship Dévastation, which by a stroke of good fortune had a piano on board, and he was able to pursue both of his passions for a time. He was quoted by his biographer Basil Deane: “Nothing is more bewitching than the slow, gentle rocking of a ship leaning to the breeze. Nothing is more delightful than to breathe the salty freshness of the ocean, when one is stretched out on the maintop beneath the splendor of a billowing top-sail.” Roussel’s frail health ended his career on the sea three years later and he turned to music, eventually starting his career at an age when most composers are well along in their development.

World War I intervened and he was put on active duty as an ambulance driver (as was fellow impressionist composer Maurice Ravel, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and novelist Ernest Hemingway). A letter to his wife, quoted by Deane in the same biography, shows Roussel’s belief in the relationship of music to his service at sea: “The sea, the sea! There is nothing more beautiful in the world, is there? And it is beside the sea that we shall fulfill our lives and that we shall sleep, so that we may still hear in the distance her eternal murmuring. I am sorry that I left at home those splendid lines of Verhaeren which I read to you one day, you remember, and which made such a strong impression on you. To achieve the same thing in music, to contrive to evoke all of the feelings which lie hidden in the sea – the sense of power and of infinity, of charm, anger and gentleness – this must be the greatest joy that could be given in the world to an artist in the domain of his art, and, when you think about it, such an attempt seems foolish and ridiculous. And yet, if the lines of Verhaeren can convey in a striking manner this impression of grandeur and power, why should not music, which is infinitely more suited to render that which is elemental and imprecise, convey it also?” Roussel wrote the ballet Le Festin de l’Araignée in 1912 and 1913 in collaboration with writer Gilbert de Voisins. This is among his early works, which show a strong impressionist voice in the lineage of Claude Debussy.

Impressionism in music followed the style in painting established by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and others in the 1860s. The sharp lines and realistic portrayals that characterized French painting became blurred and less defined. This gave a dreamy quality to the visual art, and music imitated this aspect – there were fewer ending cadences and tonality was much less defined. Roussel and Maurice Ravel were, respectively, seven and thirteen years younger than Debussy, and both followed his lead, although Roussel moved further away from the style after 1920.

The ballet is about the spider capturing various insects before falling victim to a preying mantis. The dances included in the suite are the entry of the ants, the butterfly’s dance, the mayfly’s dance and funeral, and nightfall in the garden. It was premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Arts on April 3, 1913 with choreography by Léo Staats. Roussel created the “Fragments” suite and conducted the premiere recording in 1926 – this turned out to be his only recording as a conductor. Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra performed the work during a 1946 broadcast, and several American orchestras recorded it shortly thereafter.

Le Festin de l’Araignée Suite is scored for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, percussion, celesta, harp, and strings. The duration of the work is about 17 minutes.

 

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite, Op. 60 Richard Strauss, born June 11, 1864, in Munich; died September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

Richard Strauss

Although Richard Strauss wrote Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, known in German as Der Bürger als Edelmann, in 1911 and completed the suite that we hear tonight in 1917, the beginnings of this music date all the way back to the time of Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” in Versailles in 1670, in the middle of the Baroque era in music history. Renowned playwright Moliére and court composer JeanBaptiste Lully collaborated on a production of a new work that poked fun at the social mores of the era, when a “gentleman” had to be born into that status, and thus would look down his nose at the middle class – the bourgeois. The play centers around the son of a successful tailor, Jourdain, whose goal is to become an aristocrat.

Strauss was thoroughly rooted in the lush, late Romantic world as the composer of symphonic poems such as Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, and Ein Heldenleben, as well as operas including Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. In this work, however, he clearly emulates both the styles and the sound world of Lully to varying degrees in different movements of the suite. So why did he write the music before World War I, but not get around to the suite until it was near its end?

Hugo von Hoffmannstal was an influential poet and author who served as the principal librettist for Strauss’s operas. The pair had an idea for a combination play with incidental music that also included an opera as the final act. After completion and some trial performances, they came to the conclusion that it was too long, and that the audiences for the two forms were not necessarily the same. The former final act opera was reworked and became the successful opera Ariadne auf Naxos.

Strauss recast nine selections from the incidental music to the play several years later as the suite we hear this evening.
The Overture begins with the string section and the piano, in what must certainly have been in homage to Lully. In the baroque era it would have been common to hear this texture, except with the harpsichord taking the place of the piano, which was not invented until several decades after the Moliére/Lully version of the story. The following slower section with trumpet fanfares and solos by the oboe and flute are pure Strauss romanticism.

The Menuetto was a Baroque dance that was frequently employed by the ballet company in the operas of Lully. It would evolve into a significant part of the symphony in the next century with the works of Haydn and Mozart. This one begins with a flute duet that is clearly in the neo-Baroque style that Strauss used in this work. Once the strings take the lead, we are solidly back into the sound world of Richard Strauss. It should be mentioned that around the same time, immediately post-WWI, and continuing through the 1930s, many composers (notably Stravinsky, Hindemith, Ravel, and Respighi) used a neo-Baroque or neo-Classical style in their works. Strauss really never ventured as completely into this trend, employing the style only in works that were based, however loosely in some cases, on actual examples of music from those historical eras.

The next movement, the Fencing Master, is a Viennese waltz. I am reminded of a funny cartoon from NPR that went out through Facebook a couple of weeks ago. A couple is drinking coffee at the dinner table when the woman says, “I see that the symphony is playing an all-Strauss program.” The man answers, “Is that the Blue Danube Waltz Strauss or the strip tease and severed head Strauss?” Although this section is a waltz, it is definitely written by the latter. The waltz morphs into a gallop, and this combination seems to be a clear nod to “the Blue Danube Waltz Strauss.”

The Dance of the Tailors returns us to the sound world of Lully for a moment. By the time the strings, woodwinds, and horns join together, we are back to the full-blown Strauss sound of Also sprach and Heldenleben. The horns and trombone give us an ominous feel accompanying the strings. A marvelous horn solo signals the return to the Viennese style.

Lully’s Minuet is one of the stylistic highlights of the work, with the opening oboe and flute featuring a clear tip of the hat to Louis XIV’s favorite composer. The rest of the movement definitely does not remind us of the French baroque!

The Courante is another old French dance style, and this one takes us back to the 17th century. It was often employed by many of the masters of the Baroque, including Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel.

The Entry of Cléonte is another section with a clear tie to Lully. It is a sarabande with a phrase from Lully’s music from another collaboration with Moliére, George Dandin or The Confused Husband, from a 1668 production. This section is scored for strings, perhaps an allusion to the ensemble at Versailles known as the Les vingt-quatre Violons du Roi – the King’s 24 Violins. Lully himself performed with this ensemble, giving him a stipend and the right to carry a sword! The second section is quite different, and is scored for the woodwind choir. The finale takes us back to the main tune, this time with cymbal crashes and a dramatic entry of the timpani at the end.

The Intermezzo is the entry of two dishonest characters, perhaps in the fashion of the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, in the film version) in Les Miserables. In this version, they are a conniving count and his flirtatious young escort.

The Finale of the suite is the dinner, and Strauss dispenses with any Baroque connections and bases this one solidly in the Romantic era, quoting himself several times, and even Richard Wagner with a leitmotif from Das Reingold, as salmon was being served. He used the lamb music from his own Don Quixote to accompany the mutton course. Strauss was the conductor for the premiere performance of this work in Berlin in 1918.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is scored for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), two horns, a trumpet, a trombone, timpani and other percussion, harp, piano, and strings. It duration is about 40 minutes.

Notes By Charles P. Conrad, DMA – © 2018

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