Tchaikovsky composed this short work in 1887 while tending a seriously ill friend in Germany. This experience affected him emotionally, and is reflected in the melancholy nature of this piece.
The opening is somber and impassioned; it’s then followed by a lyrical singing main theme. There is a sudden change into a virtuosic scherzo, with brilliant ‘cello passage work. After a return to the lyrical theme, the scherzo makes a final appearance.
This remarkable work was composed by Haydn while he was on his second visit to London in 1792.
It was initially prompted by a rivalry: Haydn’s former pupil Ignaz Pleyel had composed and performed a “sinfonia concertante” in London in early 1792, featuring a number of solo instruments set off against the orchestra. This musical form was very much in vogue in both Paris and London at the time. In response, the impresario and violinist Johann Peter Salomon, the sponsor of Haydn’s London concerts, asked Haydn to compose a similar work for an upcoming concert in two months.
Haydn set to work and composed this sparkling piece work in short order. It features a solo quartet (violin, ‘cello, oboe and bassoon), as well as a full symphony orchestra, in a combination of concerto and concerto grosso styles.
There are some unusual features: in the first movement the solo quartet enters in the midst of the orchestral theme, engaging the orchestral forces even before their own solo entrance.
The middle movement features chamber music among the soloists, and is almost conversational in style.
The last movement starts off as a conventional allegro, but is suddenly interrupted by a number of operatic recitatives played by the solo violin – in the London premiere by Salomon himself.
Allegro con spirito
Tchaikovsky composed the Variations on a Rococo Theme in December of 1876, amidst the turmoil of a failed opera production in St. Petersburg and a particularly nasty review in Vienna from the feared critic Eduard Hanslick. Prone to insecurity even at the best of times, Tchaikovsky asked for advice from the new work’s intended cello soloist, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Just 28, Fitzenhagen was a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and principal cellist for the Imperial Russian Music Society. He also fancied himself a composer, and his “corrections” to the work of his well-established colleague show surprising aplomb. Fitzenhagen rearranged the order of the variations,
removing one entirely, and rewrote most of the solo part. Tchaikovsky accepted the changes, and the hybridized version entered the popular canon, thanks to Fitzenhagen’s numerous concert appearances and an 1889 publication. 20th-century scholarship (aided by X-rays) revealed Tchaikovsky’s original music under Fitzenhagen’s emendations, and a reconstructed version debuted in Moscow in 1941. By then, Fitzenhagen’s edition had cemented its reputation among cellists and audiences, and it continues to be the customary choice for performances.
The Variations on a Rococo Theme reference the 18th Century — especially Mozart, whom Tchaikovsky adored. The theme is Tchaikovsky’s own invention, and it has little relation to the ornate Rococo style that emerged in France under Louis XIV, a movement that produced gilded palaces and the trill-happy music of Couperin. Following a stately orchestral introduction, the cello introduces the light-stepping “rococo” theme, balanced into two repeated sections. The theme ends with a harmonically adventurous codetta, first in the winds alone and then shifting to the strings. That material returns various times to link the connected variations, and it brings Tchaikovsky’s rich Romantic voice into dialogue with the lean Classical ideals explored elsewhere in the work.
The first two variations maintain the theme’s flavor and pulse, adding increasing decoration and commentary. The third variation breaks away to a singing melody, one of those heartbreaking tunes that Tchaikovsky unfurled with such ease. The fourth and fifth variations return to an outgoing, virtuosic character, culminating in an extended cadenza. The sixth variation, a minor-key andante, bookends the earlier slow section, and trails off in an ascent of ethereal harmonics. The final variation follows the work’s only pause, and enters with a rustic, throbbing intensity. It intensifies through quick call-and-response phrases and breathless figurations, linking directly to the energetic coda and a rousing conclusion.
Copyright © Aaron Grad 2011
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.
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.
In Scotland, the cross-fertilization between classical violin music and traditional fiddle tunes began in the 18th century. Because fiddle players in Scotland had an unusually high rate of musical literacy, their folk music, unlike that in other countries, was often learned and written down. As a result, hundreds of printed and manuscript collections were created between the 1740s and the end of the century. Max Bruch found some of these Scottish melodies in a copy of Scottish Musical Museum by James Johnson, during a visit to the Munich Library in 1862. He said that the Scots tunes “pulled me into their magical circle” and that they were more beautiful and original than folk tunes from Germany.
The “Fantasia for the Violin and Orchestra with Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies,” better known as the “Scottish Fantasy,” was written mostly during the winter of 1879–80. Bruch struggled over whether to call the work a fantasy or concerto and in the end chose the word “Fantasy” because of its free style. Unlike a normal fantasy, however, the Scottish Fantasy consists of four full-fledged movements. The role of the harp, an instrument associated with Scotland’s earliest traditional music, is nearly as prominent as that of the violin soloist.
Each of the Scottish Fantasy’s four movements are based on a different Scottish folk tunes. The piece begins in darkness, evoking the image of “an old bard, who contemplates a ruined castle, and laments the glorious times of old.” We then are introduced to the 18th century tune “Through the Wood Laddie.” The second movement is based on “The Dusty Miller,” a lively, cheerful tune that first appeared in the early 1700s. “Through the Wood Laddie” is revisited in the transition to the third movement whose main theme is derived from the 19th century song, “I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie.” The main theme of the finale is the unofficial Scottish national anthem, “Scots, Wha Hae,” (Robert Burns’ tribute to the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn). This ancient war song and “stomping dance” has taken on many different titles and sets of lyrics over the years. Bruch alternates virtuostic variations on the main theme interspersed with a contrasting lyrical melody. After one last appearance of a phrase from “Through the Wood Laddie,” the Scottish Fantasy concludes triumphantly.
As part of his vast musical output, Mozart wrote numerous works for use in church services. Among them were 17 short pieces, none more than 4 minutes long, known as “Church Sonatas” or “Epistle Sonatas.” They were meant to be played during Mass, and were composed by Mozart as part of his duties for the Archbishop of Salzburg. These charming works display Mozart’s customary elegance and grace. Most of them are scored for violins, bassi (‘cello, bass and bassoon) and organ. This includes K. 69, which we’re performing today – and which Mozart composed in 1772 when he was just 16 years old.
“Tubby,” with music by George Kleinsinger and story by Paul Tripp, was composed in 1946. It serves as a wonderful introduction to the orchestra, and has become a well-loved children’s classic.
It tells the story of Tubby, a fat little tuba who just wants to be treated like all of the other instruments of the orchestra. As the lowest-sounding instrument, Tubby usually just gets to play “oompah-oompah.” What he really wants is to play pretty melodies just like all of the other instruments in the orchestra!
When Tubby first tries to do that, the other instruments make fun of him. After rehearsal, Tubby goes home and sits sadly by a riverbank; but there, he meets a big bullfrog, who teaches him a wonderful new melody. At the next rehearsal, the conductor gives Tubby the chance to play his new melody. Tubby plays it so beautifully that all the other instruments love it and want to play it too!
Everyone joins together in the rousing finale, making Tubby a very happy tuba indeed.
Carl Maria von Weber was one of the pioneers, if not the preeminent pioneer, of German Romanticism in music.
The Andante and Rondo Ungarese (Hungarian Rondo) was originally written, in 1809, for viola solo and orchestra. Von Weber later re-worked the piece for bassoon solo (1813), upon request of Georg Friedrich Brandt, bassoonist of the Munich Orchestra. The Andante is a set of short variations. The rondo marks one of the early points of Germanic fascination with things Hungarian in its rollicking melody and dance-like character. Later well-known examples of this fashion are Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and the finale of his violin concerto.