Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was one of France’s most intriguing 20th-century composers. After studying at the Paris Conservatoire, he secured a position in 1917 as a cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Brazil, where he received much exposure to Brazilian music. Upon returning to Paris in 1919, he became associated with the circle of famous early 20th-Century French composers known as “Les Six.”
The author of numerous symphonic and chamber works, Milhaud originally composed the music for Scaramouche in 1937 as incidental music for saxophone to accompany a children’s play. He was then asked to transcribe the music for two pianos, which he did as a three-movement suite. The transcription proved so popular that he then re-orchestrated the suite for saxophone and orchestra in 1940, when it was premiered by the famous French saxophonist Marcel Mule.
The music is in three movements – Vif , Modéré, and Brazileira. The first movement is a witty dialogue between the solo saxophone and orchestra, with some motifs loosely based on an English folk song. The second movement is more reflective, with the soloist initially juxtaposed against a sonorous muted chorus of trumpets, trombones, bassoons and basses. The last movement, based on samba rhythms, is one of his most recognizable works and clearly shows the influence of his early Brazilian interlude.
This short piece can perhaps best be described as an impressionist miniature jewel, more evocative of mood than anything else. Curiously, the title has no particular significance; Ravel used it because he liked the sound of it.
The Pavane opens with a soaring theme played by the French Horn, picked up later by the winds and finally the muted strings. A contrasting middle section introduced by the flute separates the main thematic material. Impressionist harmonies, muted strings and harp glissandi all combine to evoke shifting moods – first stately and somber, then urgent and lively, and (at the end) wistful and introspective.
Appalachian Spring is undoubtedly one of Copland’s best-known works. It led to his receiving the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1945 and helped catapult him to popular fame.
Copland received a commission to compose the original version in 1943-44 as ballet music for Martha Graham, whose dance company premiered the work in 1944. He originally scored it for 13 instruments and called the piece “Ballet for Martha;” it was she, in fact, who gave it the title “Appalachian Spring” by which we now know it. In 1945 Copland revised the ballet into the full orchestral suite which we are performing today.
A programmatic piece, it describes a scene in Western Pennsylvania in the 1830s centering on a celebration around a pioneer family’s new farmhouse. It opens with a slow introduction to the characters, setting a serene, calm mood with echoing three-note rising themes in the winds. It abruptly shifts to a fast, lively section (opening with leaping octaves in the upper strings), with elated and religious thematic overtones brought out by the brass and winds. This is followed by a slow dance between the bride and her intended groom, full of tenderness and passion. Next, a revivalist and his flock appear; the music reflects folk themes and evokes square dances and country fiddles. A lively solo bride’s dance comes next, heralded by fast scale-like passages in the flutes and violins and then by the entire orchestra.
After a transition which echoes the opening themes, there follow a series of scenes of daily life with a theme and variations based on the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts.” After an inspiring climax, the strings and winds revert to quiet passages evoking contemplation and prayer. At the end of the piece, the pioneer couple are left “quiet and strong” in their new house.
Strauss composed his elegant oboe concerto in exile in Switzerland shortly after the end of World War II.
A far cry from Strauss’ lush late romantic tone poems, the concerto harks back to the classicism of Mozart. Its themes are harmonically lucid and charming. The work is sparely scored for soloist and chamber orchestra (strings, woodwinds and horns).
The first movement is based on a recurring four-note motif in the strings, followed immediately by the soaring oboe melody and extensive thematic and harmonic development. The second movement, which follows without a break, includes an extended oboe cadenza accompanied in part by the orchestra. The sprightly third movement starts off with intertwined melodies involving the solo oboe, flute and clarinet. After a short cadenza, the main theme is transformed into a sweeping 6/8 closing Allegro.
Many of the motifs played by soloist and orchestra involve leaps and jumps reminiscent of other famous Strauss tone poems.
The Russian contemporary of Honegger, Sergei Prokofiev grew up in the atmosphere of late Russian Romanticism that he abandoned as soon as his compositional style gained strength and individuality. His works already had very early on a motor, sometimes anti-emotional character, a tendency that Prokofiev, in the 1930s, would call “New Simplicity”—a rather theatrical, staged return to classic forms and means of expression different from Romanticized music.
After the Soviet revolution, Prokofiev in 1918 was granted an exit visa from the new Soviet government and went to Paris, where his 1st Violin Concerto received its premier. Although it had been difficult to find a soloist for the first concerto—many violinists “flatly refused to learn that music”—the 2nd Violin Concerto was commissioned by a group of admirers of the French violinist Robert Soëtans.
Written in 1935, shortly before his final return to his home country Russia (which he visited only briefly, having worked abroad since 1918), Prokofiev wrote: “The variety of places in which the concerto was written is a reflection of the nomadic concert-tour existence I led at that time: the principal theme of the first movement in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the instrumentation was completed in Baku and the first performance was given in Madrid.”
Pastorale d’Eté (Summer Pastoral), written in 1920 during a vacation in the Swiss Alps and subtitled “Poème Symphonique,” was inspired by a quotation from Arthur Rimbaud: J’ai embrassé l’aube d’été (“I’ve embraced the dawn of the summer”).
Honegger expresses his impression of this summery idyll in Switzerland with pastoral and shepherd airs that often recall Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”. The happiness is never disturbed. The three parts – calm, lively and gay, calm – merge into one another, the third combining and superimposing the musical elements of the first two.
Barber set this masterpiece to a poem by American author James Agee (1909-1955). Knoxville was first performed in 1948 by soprano Eleanor Steber with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Serge Koussevitsky.
It evokes a summer evening in the backyard of a southern town, as seen through the eyes of a small child. It starts out calmly. The main motive of several falling and rising notes appears in the solo winds (oboe, clarinet and bassoon) in the first few measures. This transitions to a wistful, poignant depiction of the scene – people rocking on porches, talking about everyday things, looking at people and buggies going by in the street.
The agitated middle section starts abruptly – a vivid depiction of “a streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping; belling and starting, stertorous …” After the streetcar fades into the distance, the scene and music revert to the backyard scene – calm again at first, then more urgent as the child’s thoughts turn to the family, life and living, and her place in the world.
Many of Vaughan Williams’ compositions incorporate elements of folk music. This short suite was originally composed for a military band and is entirely based on English folk tunes – “Seventeen Come Sunday,” “My Bonny Boy,” and a set of folk songs from Somerset.
The suite was arranged for full orchestra by Gordon Jacobs, one of Vaughan Williams’ students and a composer in his own right. The orchestral arrangement received Vaughan Williams’ endorsement after its publication in 1924.
The two outer fast movements are sprightly, in march tempo. They evoke the British Empire at its martial zenith, with emphasis on brass and percussion. The middle movement is wistful and contemplative, with plaintive wind solos alternating with the strings.
One of Sibelius’ best-known works, this little waltz comes from the incidental music written in 1903 for Arvid Järnefelt’s play “Kuolema.” Sibelius was a great miniaturist, and in this brief work he creates a world of deep melancholy and sadness, as well as drama.
Arthur Honegger’s lovely, neoclassical Concerto da Camera dates from 1948 and is scored for the unusual combination of flute, English horn (a larger version of the oboe), and strings. The first movement is like a gracious dialogue, the second a gravely beautiful song with wistful counterpoint and rich, dissonant harmonies. The finale is a rather lively dance, full of gentle good humor.