John Cheever (1912-1982) was one of the most important American short fiction writers of the 20th century. Sometimes called “the Chekhov of the suburbs,” his stories are mostly set in the Upper East side and the New York suburbs. His themes focus on the duality of human nature, often expressed as the disparity between a character’s decorous social persona and inner corruption. A compilation of his short stories, The Stories Of John Cheever, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize For Fiction and a National Book Critics Circle Award, and its first paperback edition won a 1981 National Book Award. —from Wikipedia
In 1979 Jonathan Tunick was engaged by WNET to compose the music for a series of television dramas based on Cheever’s short stories. The composer has adapted some of his music from the series into a suite for full orchestra entitled “Cheever Country“, in three movements:
I. The Five Forty-Eight: A commuter train en route from Grand Central Station to the suburbs.
II. Amy’s Theme: Amy, an eight-year-old girl, attempts to discourage her parents’ excessive drinking by pouring their liquor down the drain. A succession of housekeepers are blamed for this and fired, until Amy is revealed as the culprit. Realizing the pain they are causing their daughter, Amy’s parents resolve to seek treatment.
III. Shady Hill Sequence: A theme and variations describing a suburban town, superficially idyllic but with an undertone of decadence.
A Little Night Music, suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, is a romantic and sophisticated musical comedy, one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular works. Swimming in a giddy atmosphere of romance, mystery and the waltz, there is no better example of its author’s penchant for an erudite, whimsical and knowing chuckle at the human condition.
In 2015 Jonathan Tunick created an orchestral suite from the score for a Sondheim Celebration concert at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago. This performance marks the work’s New York premiere.
The songs included are: Night Waltz; Now/Later/Soon; You Must Meet my Wife; In Praise of Women; A Weekend in the Country; Send in the Clowns; Night Waltz (reprise).
“Bridges” for orchestra was originally composed in 2006 as a chamber work for two clarinets, erhu, and pipa with influences drawn from the folk music of China and America. The orchestral version was commissioned by Nan Washburn and the Michigan Philharmonic and premiered in 2014.
This suite is organized around five actual bridges: Railroad Trestle Bridge in Galax, Virginia; Stone Bridge Over a Reflecting Pool in Suzhou, China; Golden Gate Bridge; Brooklyn Bridge; and Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge.
Railroad Trestle uses the motoric rhythm of a train and the sound of a fiddle and banjo playing country music. Stone Bridge is based on a traditional Chinese song called Moli Hua or Jasmine Flower. Golden Gate Bridge recalls the folk music of the 1960’s and 70’s in California, particularly a song by Joan Baez. Brooklyn Bridge brings together a second meaning of the word “bridge” in that it refers to the “B” or “bridge”section of a be-bop standard, Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. Mackinac Bridge is based on an American folk song, “The Water is Wide.”
Purcell is considered one of England’s greatest native-born composers, flourishing during the Restoration period which followed the accession of King Charles II. Prodigiously talented, he composed hundreds of works, including anthems, hymns, songs, operas, odes, theater music and instrumental works. Purcell composed his incidental music to the play “Abdelazer, or the Moor’s Revenge” in 1695, shortly before his untimely death at the age of 36. Music played an important part in Restoration theater. It marked a play’s opening and closing, scene and mood changes, and highlighted different aspects of the action. For this revenge tragedy, Purcell wrote nine separate instrumental sections — a declamatory overture and many different varieties of dance music. Of all of these, the second movement Rondeau is the most celebrated; it was used by Benjamin Britten as his theme for “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”
This short overture and its accompanying march have an unusual history. The theme, first introduced by the piccolo, is based on a Chinese tune first noted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionnaire de Musique in 1768. Described as an “Air Chinois,” the tune was brought to France from China in the 18th century by a French missionary.
The Turandot story itself was derived from Central Asian/Persian sources; it involves a prince who travels to China, falls in love with the Emperor’s daughter, solves deadly riddles to win her, and (after much travail) weds her in the end. The story has been used by (among others) Carlo Gozzi, an Italian 18th-century playwright, and most famously, Puccini in his 20th century opera.
In 1804 the noted German author Schiller translated Gozzi’s text into German. For the 1809 premiere, Weber wrote an overture and six related pieces as incidental music, with a unifying theme based on the “Air Chinois.” The overture develops the basic theme by exploring different harmonic and orchestral combinations, and features all sections of the orchestra.
This work began as a film score. In 1934 Prokofiev was commissioned to compose a score for Lieutenant Kijé (in Russian, Parootchik Kizhe), a movie satirizing the military and bureaucracy in Czarist Russia.
The plot is based on a mythical tale that hinges on a spelling error. In the film, a clerk misspells a phrase while copying out military orders: the Russian phrase “parootchiki, zheh” (“the lieutenants, however…”) becomes “Parootchik Kizheh (“Lieutenant Kizheh”). The Czar reads the orders and thinks there is a “Lieutenant Kijé” in his guard company!
Not daring to tell the Czar about the copying mistake, the Czar’s aides, courtiers and military officers instead fabricate an entire life for the “Lieutenant.” Besides a military career, they concoct a romance and even a marriage for him.
The fictional lieutenant rises high in the Czar’s esteem and is rewarded with promotions and riches. Finally, the Czar’s aides devise a way to “kill off” the non-existent lieutenant, and he is buried with military honors.
By 1937 Prokofiev reworked the movie score into a substantial five-movement suite, each depicting a scene from the fictional lieutenant’s life. It begins with the “Birth” of Kijé, featuring a far-off trumpet solo and martial music.
This is followed in succession by a Romance based on a love song (featuring a double bass solo); Kijé ‘s marriage, with a flourish of brass, pomp and ceremony, followed by a lively trumpet tune; the famous Troika, evoking a winter sleigh ride in the snow; and, finally, Kijé ‘s death and burial, in which brief passages from the other movements serve as reminiscences of his fictional “life.”
The suite ends as it began, with a trumpet solo in the distance.
Stravinsky orchestrated this suite for small orchestra based on simple tunes he initially composed for the piano between 1914 and 1917. It is one of many “miniature” works that Stravinsky composed during his life, experimenting with various combinations of instruments, styles and textures.
This short work is in four movements — an opening calm Andante; the rollicking “Napolitana,” evoking an Italian street song and featuring woodwinds; an intense Española, with jagged rhythms, offbeats and contrasts; and the final Balalaȉka, tuneful throughout, with an abrupt ending.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), Finland’s foremost composer, had a major impact on its national identity and musical life. His symphonies are cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire, as are his tone poems based on Finnish myths and national themes.
The Karelia Suite had its origins in 1893, when Sibelius was asked by Helsinki University students to compose incidental music for a gala with historical pageants; these were based on historical events in Karelia province (the southwestern region of Finland next to Russia). His music for three of those pageants became the basis for the Karelia Suite.
The first movement, with its spirited march theme, depicts the gathering of taxes by a Lithuanian duke in the 14th century (!).
The second movement Ballade portrays a bard entertaining group of nobles in a medieval castle.
The jaunty Alla Marcia depicts the Swedish conquest of a Finnish town in the 16th century.
Tchaikovsky doesn’t sound much like Mozart. The Russian composer wallowed in Romantic angst, unlike his self-confident musical predecessor from the Classical period a century earlier. Nonetheless, Peter idolized Wolfgang. The Mozartiana is Tchaikovsky’s homage to the Master on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Exposure to that opera as a child sparked Tchaikovsky’s entire musical career.
By serendipity, Tchaikovsky had a chance to view the original score of his favorite opera, owned by an acquaintance in Paris, the year before he composed Mozartiana. He used religious terminology when he wrote about handling the manuscript in a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck: “I cannot describe the feeling which came over me when I looked through this musical holy of holies.”
Tchaikovsky didn’t just admire Mozart’s music, but revered Mozart, the person, as a genius and an ideal human being. In another letter to his patroness, who did not share his enthusiasm for Mozart, he described his hero as having “a wonderful, irreproachable, infinitely kind, and angelically pure nature… He was the incarnation of the ideal of a great artist who creates because of an unconscious stirring of his genius. He wrote music as the nightingales sing, i.e. without pausing to think, without doing violence to himself…Everyone loved him; he had the most marvelous, cheerful, and equable temperament. There was not a whit of pride in him… The purity of his soul was absolute. He knew neither envy nor vengefulness nor spite, and I think that all this can be heard in his music, which has reconciling, clarifying, and caressing properties.” In other words, Mozart’s putative flawless character was everything that the self-tortured Tchaikovsky’s was not, but that he yearned for.
For his Mozartiana Tchaikovsky didn’t dare borrow themes from the opera that occasioned the tribute or any of Mozart’s most important works. Instead, he decided to borrow lesser themes, hoping to avoid the charge of hubris for rewriting masterpieces in a contemporary idiom. Instead, he hoped people would see him as drawing attention to overlooked gems. Or something like that. Tchaikovsky is known for brooding emotion rather than cold logic.
The piece was written during a stay with his younger brother Anatoly in Tiflis, now known as Tbilisi, in Georgia. Originally, Tchaikovsky had intended to translate the libretto of Don Giovanni and collaborate on an essay on the composer he so venerated as well, but only the Mozartiana was completed.
Tchaikovsky viewed it as merely an orchestration or arrangement of the original Mozart pieces. “In the course of the orchestration I made minute enhancements and modifications to the harmony,” the composer wrote to his publisher. The original Mozart pieces were for piano, excerpt for the basis of the third movement, which was originally a motet (sacred choral piece for several voices). But the great Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt had transcribed the motet for piano, and Tchaikovsky worked from the secondary source. And for the fourth movement, a Theme and Variations for piano, Mozart had borrowed a theme from a very silly comic opera by Gluck, The Pilgrimage to Mecca.
You might forgive a listener unable to recognize the Mozart in Tchaikovsky’s rendition. It sounds more like The Nutcracker than like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. While most of the scoring is consistent with an orchestra from Mozart’s day, Mozartiana sounds richer and lusher than anything Mozart might have been familiar with. Tchaikovsky expands the percussion section (listen for the Glockenspiel in the final movement) and adds a heavenly harp to the third movement, Pregheira (Prayer). Yet some of the classical purity shines through, especially in the first two movements.
The first movement is a jig [Gigue], marked Allegro (fast and happy), from Mozart’s Eine kleine Gigue for piano (KV 574).
The second movement is a court dance, Minuet [Menuet], marked Moderato, from Mozart’s Menuett for piano (KV 355).
Preghiera-andante non tanto
The third movement, Prayer [Pregheira], is marked Andante non tanto (slower but not too much—walking tempo), after Mozart’s motet Ave Verum Corpus (KV 618) in a transcription for piano solo by Franz Liszt.
Theme and variations
The final movement showcases solo talent from throughout the orchestra, especially the principal violin. It is a Theme and Variations [Thème et variations] with the tempo marking Allegro giusto (truly fast and happy, with energy) from Mozart’s Ten Piano Variations on a Theme by Gluck, K. 455.
All four movements together add up to about 25 minutes of playing time, with more than half of that of that devoted to the last movement. Ballet lovers may find Mozartiana familiar, as George Balanchine choreographed it in 1981, although he reshuffled the order of the movements.
Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande tells the story of Golaud who encounters the mysterious Mélisande in the forest, and marries her. But very soon, Mélisande finds her true love in the person of Pelléas, Golaud’s half-brother. Golaud becomes suspicious of the lovers, killing Pelléas and wounding Mélisande. Mélisande dies in childbirth, and Golaud continues his descent into madness.
In the twelve years following the play’s 1893 premiere in Paris, four great composers wrote music inspired by Maeterlinck’s masterpiece – Claude Debussy (opera), Gabriel Faure (incidental music), Arnold Schoenberg (symphonic poem) and Jean Sibelius (incidental music).
After Debussy completed an early version of his opera in 1895, British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (soon to play the role of Mélisande in London), requested Debussy to excerpt a symphonic suite from the opera to accompany the play’s London production. Debussy refused. Mrs. Campbell then asked Faure to write incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play. Faure agreed. After a one-month collaboration with orchestrator Charles Koechlin, the score of the Incidental Music to Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80 was ready. Maeterlinck, present at the 1898 London premiere of the translated play — accompanied by Faure’s incidental music — wrote to Mrs. Campbell, “In a few words, you filled me with an emotion of beauty the most complete, the most harmonious, the sweetest that I have ever felt to this day.”
Mort de Melisande
The orchestral suite consists of four numbers — Prelude (the prelude to Act I in Faure’s complete orchestral score), La Fileuse (Mélisande at the spinning wheel), Sicilienne (the actual prelude to Act II with one of the most famous flute solos in the symphonic repertoire) and La Mort de Mélisande (the Prelude to Act III).