WSO Rhapsody


Waterbury Symphony Orchestra (September 2009)

The history of the rhapsody begins with the ancient Greeks, who applied the term rhapso-dos to the recitation of epic poetry.  Over time, the idea of “rhapsody” as a literary genre broadened to include expansive collections and anthologies of otherwise unrelated writings.  With the advent of the Renaissance, however, the rhapsody would acquire an array of suspect associations, faltering under the weight of accusations of formlessness, incoherence, and emotional excess.

Much like the romance and the ballade, the rhapsody made a compelling crossover from literature to music at the height of nineteenth-century Romanticism. The rhapsody’s inherent capacity for flamboyance and unpredictability attracted many of Europe’s performing virtuosi, including the composer, pianist, and consummate showman Franz Liszt (1811-86), whose Hungarian Rhapsodies influenced several of the composers featured on tonight’s program.  Nevertheless, the Austro-Germanic tradition of the symphony, via its fundamental values of logic and formal unity, loomed large:  most notably in the figure of Beethoven, whose music brilliantly addressed the seemingly contradictory impulses of self-expression and adherence to conventional formal boundaries.

Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) honed his musical skills at that city’s conservatory before embarking upon a long and successful career as a composer, violinist, and conductor.  While Alfvén never attained a level of fame comparable to his Scandinavian contemporaries Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), he became an active participant in his country’s quest for a distinctively Swedish musical repertory.  Indeed, Swedish folk music and traditions inspired much of Alfvén’s oeuvre, from his numerous choral folk song arrangements to the orchestral program music.  His Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, op. 19 (1903), subtitled “Midsummer Vigil,” references traditional Swedish festivities associated with the summer solstice through the use of folk melodies.  Rhapsodic elements in this piece emerge in the juxtaposition of contrasting styles and events melded into a joyous narrative whole.

Best known as the composer of the orchestral suite The Planets (1916), Britishman Gustav Holst (1874-1934) in fact explored a variety of genres, from opera to choral and band music.  Holst came of age at a moment when many British musicians, in particular the composers Edward Elgar (1857-1934) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), sought to recoup and reinvigorate a national tradition that had ostensibly vanished from the world stage with the death of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).  Towards this end, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, together with folklorist Cecil Sharp, began to collect and publish English folk songs.  While Holst lacked the nationalistic zeal of his contemporaries, he followed the lead of Elgar and Vaughan Williams in melding classical and folk traditions in several of his works.  In Somerset Rhapsody (1907), Holst draws upon English folk songs collected by Sharp in the city of Somerset.

Born into a Jewish immigrant family, the composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) had firsthand experience with the rapidly evolving racial, ethnic, and class profile of turn-of-the-century America.  Gershwin began his career as a songwriter and performer in the flashy world of Tin Pan Alley and musicals, but with the advent of the Jazz Age in the 1920s he expanded his ambitions to include classical music. Like many of his contemporaries, Gershwin sought to rescue American music from the long-standing grip of Western European traditions.  As a virtuoso pianist Gershwin was already a jazz veteran, and he began to flesh out ideas about how he might tap the American genres of jazz and blues to found a uniquely American classical tradition.  His so-called “jazz concerto” Rhapsody in Blue would stand as powerful testimony to the legitimacy of such ideas.

Originally written for solo piano, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered in 1924 on a program entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music.”  Organized by bandleader and symphonic jazz pioneer Paul Whiteman (1890-1967), the concert itself might well be considered rhapsodic, for it included such diverse fare as the comic song “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, and an orchestrated medley of popular Irving Berlin songs.  The bluesy clarinet solo announcing the start of Rhapsody in Blue effectively erased audience expectations of a “purely” classical work.  Simply put, the solo sounded improvised, in blatant defiance of traditional classical models. This improvisatory feel, coupled with the episodic nature of the work and its uneasy juxtaposition of virtuosity and lyricism, led to the inevitable charges of incoherence and formlessness. At the same time, the piece may be understood, as a very loose interpretation of a rondo, with the opening bluesy melody and subsequent repeated- note theme providing a frame.

The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) began his musical studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  Founded in 1861 by Anton Rubenstein, the conservatory  quickly developed a reputation for privileging the Austro-Germanic tradition at the expense of native Russian music:  a tendency that Russia’s most ardent musical nationalists (namely, The Mighty Five) loudly decried.  As such, Rachmaninoff would never shed the label of musical conservative, which proved detrimental to his historical legacy.  In Russia, by contrast, the conservative tag would serve him well. Like many of his contemporaries, Rachmaninoff fled Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution, yet he would never face the “modernist” accusations directed at such composers as Stravinsky and Prokofiev during the Stalinist era, which resulted in bans on the performance and study of their music in Russia.

The musical source for Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) is the final Caprice in a set of twenty-four composed by the nineteenth-century violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840).  Paganini conceived of this caprice as a theme and variations, with each variation offering a unique demonstration of violin technique and idiomatic writing for the instrument.  Both Liszt and Schumann would write compositions based on Paganini’s theme, but Rachmaninoff’s rendering would become the most successful. Like Paganini, Rachmaninoff employs the classical theme and variations form, but Rachmaninoff goes on to inject a number of rhapsodic gestures.  The most striking gesture by far is the musical dialogue between Paganini’s caprice theme and the imposing Dies irae chant melody.

Romanian-born George Enescu (1881-1955) may be best known in musical circles today as the violin teacher of the great Yehudi Menuhin (1916-99), yet his work as a composer and conductor went a long way towards advancing the cause of Romanian musical nationalism.  Enescu learned the basics of the Austro-Germanic tradition as a young man at the Vienna Conservatory, where he found inspiration in the works of such composers as Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, and Johannes Brahms.  The punishing pace of Enescu’s performance career took a profound toll on his composing; indeed, in comparison to the other four composers featured on tonight’s program, Enescu’s output was shockingly small.  The Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 (1901) is his most popular work.  As the work’s title suggests, Enescu draws musical inspiration from Romanian folk traditions.  The rhapsodic element of tonight’s piece lies in the rapid-fire evocation of authentic Romanian folk dances.

Elizabeth Lorenzo, PhD