Canteloube (1879-1957) was born in the Ardèche region in southern France. Early on he showed a proclivity for musical composition and eventually studied in Paris.
While he composed two operas and a number of other works, he is best known today for his settings of French folk songs, particularly those from the Auvergne region in south-central France, a rural and mountainous region. He arranged six “series” or books of these songs; the ones we’re performing today have been selected from books 1-4, composed in the 1920s. They can be sung either in the “Auvergnat” dialect (based on the medieval Occitan language — the “langue d’oc”), or in French. We’ve chosen to perform them in Auvergnat because its piquant flair fits so well with the music.
The songs themselves feature mostly country themes — a shepherd pleading with a shepherdess to come to him over the river, pledging to her his devoted love (Pastourelle); a girl’s scornful rejection of a hunchback’s offer of love (Lou Boussu); a haunting duet sung by a shepherdess and shepherd, echoing across the mountains — the shepherd finally promising to cross the river to her (Bailèro); a warning that drinking spring water is fatal — a maiden should drink wine instead, especially if she wants to get married (L’Aïo de Rotso); let’s find a meadow to graze our flocks and make love (Ound’ Onorèn Gorda?); and a hymn of praise to the beautiful girls, and to the gallant and faithful men, of the Auvergne (Obal din lou Limouzi).
A gifted and eclectic composer, Griffes was born in western New York in 1884 and died prematurely in 1920 at the age of 35.
Although he studied with German pianists and composers, he was most influenced by early 20th-century French and Russian composers, and by oriental music. He developed his own unique style of American Impressionism, which clearly comes through in his Three Tone Pictures.
He originally composed these pieces for solo piano in 1915, and then orchestrated them for small ensemble. An avid devotee of poetry, he chose the titles of these atmospheric pieces from texts in three poems – William Butler Yeats’ The Lake at Innisfree (“The Lake at Evening”); Edgar Allan Poe’s The Sleeper (“The Vale of Dreams”), and Poe’s The Lake (“The Night Winds”).
Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was an influential American composer and teacher in the first half of the 20th century. He served on the composition faculties of the Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, the Curtis Institute, and the North Carolina School for the Arts; among his students were many prominent American composers, including John Corigliano, David Amram, and Nicholas Flagello.
A prolific composer in a neo-romantic style, Giannini wrote numerous symphonies, over 12 operas, works for concert band, songs, concertos and chamber works; his most enduring success was an opera buffa adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. His compositional style grew darker and more complex towards the end of his life, and this is reflected in his Psalm 130, a work of anguish and passion – and a tour de force for the double bass.
Giannini composed the Psalm in 1963 when he was in the midst of being divorced from his young wife, and he poured his soul into this piece. The Psalm is in three sections. It opens with a declamatory statement in the high winds and strings, based on a minor seventh, which is the work’s main theme. The middle section is slower, wistful, and somber, with the soulful double bass line set off against plaintive woodwind motifs. The third section returns to and intensifies the opening theme, interspersed with double bass recitatives, before coming to an abrupt and intense end.
This work is considered by many to be among Vaughan William’s finest compositions.
Its theme is taken from a tune composed by Thomas Tallis, a 16th-century English renaissance composer. Vaughan Williams came across the tune when editing the English hymnal in 1906. When Vaughan Williams edited the hymnal, he assigned a later text to it (John Addison’s “When rising from the bed of death”), and made it the basis for the Fantasia.
The orchestration is unusual. There are two string orchestras – a first “large” orchestra, and a second small “shadow” orchestra, physically separate from each other; a string quartet; and violin and viola soloists.
The Tallis theme is initially foreshadowed by plucked lower strings, before its full exposition, first in a calm mode by middle voices, then in an impassioned mode by the first violins. An introspective viola solo leads to a rich development, in which the large orchestra’s lush sound is echoed by the “shadow” orchestra, with interplay between the string quartet and both orchestras. After a climax (based largely on the second part of the Tallis tune), the work ends with a wistful repetition of the main theme, a soaring solo violin line, one last climax, and a slow fade away.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was active as a composer and teacher in the first part of the 20th century. He played a number of instruments, including piano, violin and trombone, and is best known for his large-scale orchestral work, “The Planets.”
Holst composed many other works which were emblematic of early 20th-century British music – including a number of pieces for band which have become staples in the concert band repertoire.
He wrote the First Suite in E-Flat Major in 1909. It is a three-movement work based on the musical theme which opens the first movement, the “Chaconne” – itself a throwback to a slow triple-meter dance from the 17th-18th century. The opening 8-bar low brass melody is repeated 15 times, with variations in instrumental combinations, mood, and tonality. The following Intermezzo is a lively variation on the opening melody, but completely different in feel – reminiscent of an English folk song.
The closing March, whose second theme is also based on the “chaconne” theme, has a distinct “military” air about it. Instrumental ruffles and flourishes, and multiple interwoven melodies, lead in the end to a grand climax.
If you walk along 57th Street near Broadway, you can still see it. On the side of an ordinary-looking building, a small bronze plaque: “The great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) made his home in this house during the last year of his life.”
Each time I pass this spot, I think of the man who, dying of leukemia in a tiny apartment, far from his beloved Hungary, composed this surprisingly positive concerto during the summer of 1945. He wrote it as a birthday gift for his wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory Bartók. It is likely that he hoped it would provide her with some income after his death. Bartók completed all but the last seventeen bars himself; these last measures were orchestrated by his composer-friend Tibor Serly, based on Bartók’s sketches.
It is easy to hear the second movement (Adagio religioso) as a response to Bartók’s own illness. True or not, there is one other quite definite reference: to Beethoven’s string quartet in A-minor, op. 132, which he composed after a serious illness.
Profoundly beautiful as the concerto’s second movement is, the gracefulness of the first and the impetuous energy of the third are equally compelling. This is about as far from death-haunted music as one can get. I hear it in my mind everytime I’m on 57th Street, and I’m always astonished.
Gershwin composed the Rhapsody in just a few weeks in early 1924. It was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé (of Grand Canyon Suite fame), and premiered in New York, in February 1924, by Paul Whiteman‘s Palais Royal Orchestra band. It had enormous popular success, and instantly catapulted Gershwin to worldwide fame.
This is a quintessentially “American” work – brash, bold and exuberant; a fusion of classical and jazz styles; a piece in which the piano is both featured soloist and very much a part of the whole ensemble.
A long, low clarinet trill and rising “glissando” scale lead into the first triplet-based theme, punctuated by syncopated rhythms in the brass and winds, repeated and developed by other sections of the orchestra and the solo piano, and interspersed by solo piano variations.
Near the middle of the piece, the classic slow “blues theme” makes its appearance in the strings, is amplified by the full orchestra, and develops into the rousing finish.
A gifted and eclectic composer, Griffes was born in western New York in 1884 and died prematurely in 1920 at the age of 35. Although he studied with German pianists and composers, he was most influenced by early 20th-century French and Russian composers, and by oriental music.
He was also interested in Native American music, incorporating it into his compositions. His Poem is a fantasy for solo flute, 2 horns, harp, strings and percussion, with clear impressionist influences. Its alternating tranquil and rhythmically driven sequences and bold tonalities make it a compelling piece for audiences – and a perennial favorite for flutists.
Benjamin Franklin, one of our country’s founding fathers, was well-known as a statesman, diplomat, writer, printer, scientist and inventor – but a composer, too? Franklin’s interest in music is well-known. He printed treatises on music, played several instruments (including violin, harp, viola da gamba and guitar), and designed a four-sided music stand for string quartet players. He even invented the glass harmonica – an instrument made of rotating tuned glass bowls played by holding wet fingers against the edges, for which Mozart and Beethoven wrote compositions!
In 1946, a manuscript of a 5-movement string quartet was uncovered in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, bearing the title “Quartetto a 3 Violini Con Violoncello Del Sigre Benjamin Francklin.” It was originally (and unusually) scored for 3 violins and ‘cello to be played in “scordatura” fashion – all on open strings, with specific string tunings indicated for each instrument!
The quartet was published and attracted immediate attention from musicians and scholars, including Alan Shulman, an American composer and ‘cellist (1915-2002). Mr. Shulman, a pre-eminent ‘cellist and member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, used excerpts from the Franklin quartet in his score for the NBC radio series “American Portraits” in 1950. In 1963, he created the present Suite based on thematic material from the quartet, maintaining its original key and structure. One of its notable performances was by the Philadelphia Orchestra during the 1976 Bicentennial.
Copland composed Lincoln Portrait for narrator and orchestra in 1942. It was part of a series of musical portraits of great Americans commissioned by André Kostelanetz shortly after American entry into World War II.
In Copland’s own words: “The composition is roughly divided into three sections. In the opening section I wanted to suggest something of the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln’s personality. Also, near the end of that section, something of his gentleness and simplicity of spirit. The quick middle section briefly sketches in the background of the times he lived in. This merges into the concluding section where my sole purpose was to draw a simple but impressive frame about the words of Lincoln himself.”
Copland used excerpts from a few contemporary songs, including “Camptown Races,” to evoke the spirit of mid 19th-century America. The moving words read by the narrator are taken from Lincoln’s letters, speeches and the Gettysburg Address.