WSO Mar 09

Waterbury Symphony Orchestra Program Notes (March 8, 2009)

This afternoon the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra presents an “International Showcase” of well-known works by composers who represent diverse national repertories:  Italian, French, Russian, and American.  All four of these composers – Rossini, Saint-Saëns, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Copland – are frequently understood through the lens of nationalism and the quest for unique national musical identities that counter the longtime dominance of the Austro-Germanic tradition.

Giacomo Rossini (1792-1868) stands as the foremost composer of Italian opera during the first half of the nineteenth century.  His ability to churn out successful operas at a rapid pace earned him the scorn and reluctant admiration of Beethoven, who had labored over fourteen years to produce his lone opera, Fidelio (1814). Rossini’s international fame made him a wealthy man, and in 1829 he retreated into self-imposed retirement at the young age of thirty-seven.  William Tell (1829), written for the Paris Opéra, would be his last dramatic work.

Several of Rossini’s opera overtures, including the William Tell Overture, have achieved astounding success as concert pieces in their own right, and their musically accessible style has led to multiple appearances in the scores of films and television shows.  The William Tell Overture, for example, certainly owes much of its popularity to its use as the theme music for The Lone Ranger, but it also appears prominently in multiple Bugs Bunny cartoons (Buckaroo Bugs, 1944; Bugs Bunny Rides Again, 1948; Hare Do, 1949) and movies, including A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005).

The William Tell Overture is programmatically linked to the story of the opera, and is divided into four sections: a slow, lyrical introduction, perhaps evoking the Swiss countryside; a storm; a section featuring a traditional Swiss cowherd’s tune, played here by the English horn; and the famous, rousing horse gallop that brings the work to a close.  Rossini also employs his characteristic “Rossini crescendo”:  a crowd-pleasing push to a musical climax achieved via gradually increasing volume, repetition of phrases at increasingly higher pitch levels, and  multiple layering of more and more instruments.

The Frenchman Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) entered the prestigious Paris Conservatoire as a composition student in 1848.  Here, he would acquire the formal training and mastery of technique that would later rank him as one of the foremost composers in fin-de-siècle France.  In 1871 Saint-Saëns joined a group of young and highly-touted French composers (among them Massenet, Bizet, and Franck) in founding the Société Nationale de Musique, with the intent of establishing a viable French tradition of instrumental music:  one that could contend directly  with the formidable Austro-Germanic legacy of Beethoven and his successors.  Adopting the blatantly nationalistic motto Ars gallica, the founding members sought to meld traditional French values of elegance, concision, and clarity with the characteristically complex, Germanic instrumental forms.

Saint-Saëns wrote his Violin Concerto No. 3 (1880) for the famous Spanish violin virtuoso (and longtime friend) Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908).  In this work the composer merges the concerto genre’s traditional three movements and fast-slow-fast plan with a uniquely French lyricism and charm initially audible in the first movement’s second theme. The main cantabile melody of the second movement is alternately passed along between the violin soloists and woodwinds in a relaxed 6/8 meter. The third movement is by far the concerto’s most virtuosic, and concludes with a brass chorale:  the latter a frequent motif in many of Saint-Saëns orchestral works from the 1870s and 1880s.

Born in Brooklyn, New York into a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, Aaron Copland (1900-90) came of age in a nation intensely preoccupied with negotiating a uniquely “American” identity, measured against and alongside an increasingly diverse domestic population and an increasingly divided world.  Ironically, like many talented Americans, Copland found his musical place by moving temporarily to Paris in the 1920s, where he matured under the tutelage of one of the foremost composition teachers of the time, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979).  There he was exposed for the first time to jazz, which would closely color his own brand of American music throughout his career.

The onset of the Great Depression provoked Copland’s move towards political activism and socialist beliefs, which in turn inspired him to focus on writing music that was accessible and relevant to the “common man” of contemporary America.  His new interest in folk music engaged prominently with the Folk Consciousness movement of the 1930s led by musician-activists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.  Indeed, Copland would now turn his attention towards musical subject matter that he deemed explicitly American in character, represented in such works as Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) and the ballets Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1945), the latter of which would earn the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Copland’s ballet Billy the Kid (1938), offered today in its familiar concert suite version, is a loosely biographical depiction of the life and times of the notorious outlaw:  who, in an odd coincidence, was born “William Bonney” in Copland’s native city of Brooklyn. The unique “Americanism” of Billy the Kid, however, lies not only in its subject matter, but also in Copland’s creative adaption of American cowboy songs.  “Street in a Frontier Town,” for example, incorporates such well-known tunes as “The Old Chisholm Trail,” “The Streets of Laredo,” and “Git Along, Little Dogies.”  Copland’s usage of such songs is more paraphrase than mere quotation, and he merges these melodies with contemporary techniques of polyrhythm and polytonality. Perhaps the most notably “American” aspect of Billy the Kid, however, is Copland’s colorful orchestration.  Indeed, countless music lovers have lauded Copland’s music for its convincing portrayal of vast, open spaces, achieved via such inventive techniques as the use of open octaves and fifths and a widely spaced orchestral style.

The Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was born into a noble family, where socially rigid expectations dictated that he forego a musical career for the Naval Service.  Rimsky-Korsakov dutifully served his country for many years, but he also embarked on a path of self-education that would continue throughout much of his career.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s interest in folk music and Russian subjects and lack of formalized musical training led him to become a member of the Mighty Five:  a group of largely self-taught composers, led by Balakirev, who, in a quest for a uniquely Russian musical identity, sought to purge all Western influences from Russian music.  Rimsky-Korsakov would eventually find himself an outcast from the group when he accepted a teaching position at the conservative, and Austro-Germanic dominated, St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s well-known orchestral works lean towards the programmatic, fantastical, and exotic.  Today’s Capriccio espagnol (1887) stands alongside Sheherazade (1888) as among the most famous of these. Seven years earlier, Tchaikovsky had written a Capriccio italien, which reflected his experiences of travelling through Italy.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s work shares the “whimsical” character of the genre, but the Capriccio espagnol is imbued with his own blend of brilliant orchestration and technically demanding orchestral writing.  The composer centers the work around a recurring melody known as the Alborada (literally, “dawn song”). Memorable Spanish melodies are reinforced through such characteristically Rimsky-Korsakovian techniques as the use of a massive percussive section, which provides an energetic foundation for the colorful Spanish dances, and in the composer’s directive to the strings in the fourth movement to  play “quasi guitara” (“in the style of a guitar”).

– Elizabeth Lorenzo, PhD.  March 2009 all- rights reserved.