JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Born Eisenach, Germany, 25 March 1685; died Leipzig, 28 July 1750.
Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043
Long thought to have been written between 1717 and 1723, when Bach was Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, but possibly dating from around 1730, when Bach was living in Leipzig. Performance calls for two solo violins, string orchestra and harpsichord continuo. Duration is about 17 minutes. The SSO’s previous performance of the Double Concerto was on 27 January 1996, with Debbie Williamson and Mary Navis, soloists, and Warren Bergmann conducting.
When J.S. Bach was working for the music-loving Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, he wrote a number of concertos for solo and paired instruments (as well as the six Brandenburg Concertos, more varied in instrumentation). Bach himself might have played a violin part or the harpsichord continuo (which fills in the harmonic base of the work at hand). One of those double concertos, for two violins in D minor, is now claimed by some scholars to have been written around 1730, after Bach moved to Leipzig, where he led not only the choral forces at St. Thomas’ Church but an instrumental Collegium Musicum which gave weekly concerts at a local coffeehouse. In any case, the earliest manuscripts of the solo violin parts in Bach’s own handwriting are dated 1730, and at some later point Bach arranged the piece as a Two-Harpsichord Concerto in C minor, BWV 1062 (transposed down a tone to accommodate the highest note of the harpsichord).
What can also be said with full confidence is that in writing the Two-Violin Concerto Bach was influenced by the model of the Italian baroque concerto in three movements, as provided by Antonio Vivaldi and others—and that he created a masterpiece. The intensity and beauty of this concerto make it stand out even among the finest of his instrumental works.
The opening Vivace (lively) and closing Allegro (fast) movements alternate passages for the full orchestra and the two soloists, with much contrapuntal interweaving of themes. The Vivace begins with the second violins taking the lead and the firsts entering in fugal style; in the first solo episode the first solo violin offers a new theme with wide leaps in interval. Most baroque concerto finales are dancelike and more relaxed than the opening movement, but in his Allegro Bach has written a movement that has been called “tempestuous” and “aggressive,” with exciting interplay between the soloists and the orchestra.
As for the middle Largo ma non tanto (broadly, but not too), the orchestra takes a back seat, playing harmony as the two violins sublimely interweave their voices, as in a baroque vocal duet. Many have commented on how the music seems emotionally both intense and calm at the same time.
Born Todmorden, Yorkshire, 2 November 1944.
Concerto for Piano No. 1
Composed 1975-76 and recorded in 1977 with the composer at the piano and John Mayer leading the London Philharmonic; first live performance was in Louisville, KY, with Godfrey Salmon conducting a pickup orchestra. The score calls for 3 flutes with 3rd doubling piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, side drum, deep side drum, snare drum, triangle, bell tree, tubular bells, crotales (antique cymbals), tam-tam, tambourine, whip, glockenspiel and strings, plus piano solo. Duration about 18 minutes.
Keith Emerson may be best known as the keyboardist in the rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer (formed 1970), having earlier played with The Side and later as a solo artist. A virtuoso performer on the Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer as well as piano, and a rock composer with a strong interest in classical music, Emerson wove music by Bach and Bartok, Copland and Alberto Ginastera (“Toccata” from his Piano Concerto) into The Nice’s and ELP’s music. One of ELP’s most celebrated performances, live and on LP, was their own take on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 (No. 2 remains unfinished) is Emerson’s most ambitious composition on a grand scale. He worked closely on the orchestration and some compositional techniques with India-born musician John Mayer, who led the London Philharmonic in the Concerto’s first recording, part of a 2-LP Emerson, Lake and Palmer set called Works, Volume 1 (with each of the first three sides devoted to just one of the bandmates). ELP included the Piano Concerto in live concerts when they toured parts of the U.S. and Canada later in 1977 with a full orchestra, but it was not until pianist Jeffrey Biegel championed the work that more live performances were heard, beginning in 2008.
According to the composer’s own 2001 program note, he was inspired by the English countryside, where he was living in an early Tudor house once owned by James M. Barrie, with a barn annex containing his grand piano. In the traditional three movements but with many striking changes of mood in the first and third, the concerto “tells a different story of nature’s cycle—from its joy, destruction, and in the block chords of the third movement to an optimistic triumph.”
The Concerto’s first movement, Allegro gioioso, begins with an extended orchestral introduction that is at first agitated rather than “joyous.” A 12-tone row is featured: the 12 notes of the chromatic scale arranged to form a recurring theme that may also be played backwards and upside down. (Emerson had been studying the writings of Arnold Schoenberg, who invented the method.) A solo clarinet introduces a slower, more rhapsodic passage, leading via the strings to a solemn brass chorale. When the piano enters, the mood is immediately lighter: more playful and joyous. Somewhat later the brass introduce a new theme which the piano and the rest of the orchestra take up: it’s a stately yet lively and very English march with baroque flourishes. A transition for strings takes us to a piano cadenza with jazzy moments and opportunity for the soloist to improvise on the themes heard already. The opening tone-row briefly returns before a dash to the conclusion.
The second movement, Allegro molto cantabile, is quite short, more an intermezzo than a full-scale movement. It is lyrical but does not dawdle: very songlike (as the tempo marking specifies), somewhat in the manner of a Bach aria.
The finale, Toccata con fuoco, opens excitingly with a hard-driving pulse. (A toccata is a “touch-piece” with plenty of notes at a rapid pace; con fuoco means with fire or fury, but there is an extra meaning here: Emerson is recollecting the fire that devastated his house during the time he was writing the concerto.) Halfway through the movement a more pensive piano-solo passage calms things down a bit, but the orchestra continues to be agitated, while introducing a syncopated phrase that will be smoothed out for the climax of the piece. The phrase becomes a sweeping 16-bar theme, stated boldly in unison by the orchestra, then repeated by the piano with woodwind interplay. A brief return to agitation is swept aside by one more statement of the triumphant theme to end the concerto.
Born Ferdinand Rudolph de Grofé, New York, NY, 27 March 1892; died Santa Monica, CA, 3 April 1972.
Grand Canyon Suite
Composed 1929-31 and premiered by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, 22 November 1931 at the Studebaker Theatre, Chicago. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, suspended small and large cymbals, temple blocks, tubular bells, triangle, tam-tam, wind machine, thunder sheet, glockenspiel, vibraphone, piano, harp, celesta, and strings. Duration about 33 minutes. The SSO performed the complete Grand Canyon Suite most recently on 31 January 2004, with Guy Victor Bordo; Andrews Sill conducted “On the Trail” and “Cloudburst” 11 November 2006.
Though he was a fairly prolific composer and a gifted arranger with a long career, Ferde Grofé’s present-day fame rests almost entirely on his orchestrations of George Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue (especially the original jazz-band version and a later one for full symphony orchestra) and on his own 1931 Grand Canyon Suite. Grofé was the arranger for conductor Paul Whiteman, who led the premieres of both Rhapsody in Blue and the Grand Canyon Suite with “His Orchestra.” The Suite, like the orchestral works of Gershwin, has long been popular with audiences at both classical and pops concerts, and in earlier decades it was recorded not only by “pops” conductors like Arthur Fiedler but by Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy and Antal Dorati. Today it shows up on classical programs much less often than, say, An American in Paris, but it remains a landmark in American music for its vivid scene-painting, memorable tunes, and brilliant display of orchestral colors.
There are five separate movements:
“Sunrise.” Few natural phenomena have been pictured in music more frequently—and memorably—than dawn. A music lover’s list might merely begin with Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, Debussy’s La Mer and Respighi’s Fountains of Rome. Grofé’s dawn, quite memorable in its own right, starts out simply with a timpani roll, a quiet sustained chord for the strings, and ascending scales for the clarinets. The piccolo offers the beginning of a musical theme that soon turns into birdcall. Other instruments echo the piccolo’s opening notes while the flute tries a new melody, followed by the English horn’s fuller melodic extension of the piccolo phrase. More and more instruments join in, with the violins and violas eventually offering a counter-melody that seems to grow out of all that has been heard before. Since this is not just any sunrise but the spectacle of intensifying light revealing one of the world’s most stunning landscapes, the music becomes grand indeed, as the full orchestra joins in and the tempo increases like an overexcited pulse.
“The Painted Desert.” Serving as a kind of slow movement to the symphonic Suite, this section portrays an early-morning desert scene, presumably shimmering in intense heat. Unresolved chords and a hypnotic harp figure set the scene, while bass clarinet and violas offer an erratic musical theme. At the climax of the movement the violins offer a warmer, lovelier version of the theme, but the music subsides into the eerie quiet with which it began, with English horn and bass clarinet in high register trailing off.
“On the Trail.” The scherzo of the Suite, this movement is by far the most famous, both for its lumbering yet bouncy theme that suggests a train of burros descending into the canyon and for its “cowboy song” (so named in the anonymous notes prefacing the printed score), first played in full by two horns. The music was heard in 1933 on Grofé’s own radio show, sponsored by Philip Morris, and for many years after used in the latter’s cigarette commercials.
This movement opens with the orchestra giving a gigantic “heehaw,” echoed by a solo violin, which goes on, surprisingly but delightfully, to play an extended cadenza with a preview of the themes to come. The oboe introduces the burros’ cantering theme. Evidently these animals bolt rather than remaining stubbornly in place, since on several occasions the music speeds up rapidly before slowing to a halt, with the bass clarinet playing the role of the unmanageable beast. Eventually, with the canter replaced by a grander, dreamier orchestral background (perhaps we are near the surging Colorado River) the trombones take over the cowboy song. An unexpected interlude follows: a cadenza for celesta. (The score’s program notes mention reaching a ‘”lone cabin” which happens to have a music box that plays while the travelers stop “for refreshment.”) At the end of the movement the burros must be approaching their stable, because the cantering theme becomes a very rapid gallop before a final few heehaws.
“Sunset.” Surely there are far fewer musical sunsets in the orchestral repertoire than sunrises. One that Grofé may have recalled is the finale of The Fountains of Rome (1917), which has a few similar harmonies as well as the hint of church bells. “Sunset” opens with horn fanfares and their echoes on muted horns, with some recollection of the “dawn” theme (just as twilight shares a similar dimness of light). A murmuring figure for woodwinds and celesta sets the background for the movement’s main melody, a sweetly harmonized theme for violins and violas, with a mostly descending note pattern.
“Cloudburst.” Storms in music may be even more numerous than dawns (one could compile quite a list from operas alone, from Rossini to Wagner, Britten and beyond). Grofe’s contribution is, like his dawn, spread across an epic canvas. He begins the movement surprisingly with a reprise of the cowboy song from “On the Trail,” now played tenderly by strings alone. The English horn brings back the strings’ big dawn melody from the first movement, while the strings offer a striking new theme, a passionate one with each upward leap followed by a gradual descent. After a clarinet takes up the English horn’s own dawn melody, the new theme is repeated with full orchestra.
Soon the orchestra becomes hushed, with only a solo cello wavering between two notes and a gong shimmering in the background. In the truly spectacular storm that follows, Grofé uses his expertise in orchestral colors to create dazzling effects of rising wind and lightning flashes followed by distant rolls of thunder, building up to a terrific onslaught. At one point the storm seems to die away, then rushes back as the Suite reaches its ultimate climax: now the passionate theme from earlier in the movement is played in tandem with a heroic restatement of the cowboy theme. One final outburst of the storm music is overridden by one last triumphant assertion of the cowboy theme.