The Czech Suite was one of several works Dvořák composed for small orchestra between 1875 and 1879 (the others being his masterful string and wind serenades). While scored for a Mozart-sized orchestra (much smaller than his symphonies), it has the beauty, sweep and grandeur of Dvořák’s larger works.
The Suite is in five movements, several of which are based on Czech dance forms. A tranquil Pastorale opens this work, essentially a prelude based on a simple descending theme passed around various string and wind sections. Next come two specifically Czech dance movements — a Polka, featuring a rising graceful theme in the violins, with a lively trio; and then a country minuet (“Sousedská”), opening with a decisive statement from clarinets and bassoons.
A short lyrical romance follows, featuring upper winds (flutes, oboes, English horn) and charming wind and string dialogues.
The finale is based on a boisterous Czech dance form, the “Furiant” (also used by Dvořák in other instrumental works), full of drive, syncopation and rhythmic flourishes, and ending in a fiery dash.
Jean-Joseph Mouret (1682-1738) was a court composer active in France during the reigns of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) and his son, Louis XV. Very few of his compositions have survived, and even fewer are known to the public.
The major exception is this collection of fanfares known as his “Premiere Suite de Symphonies” which was first performed for Louis XV. The Suite has four movements, each with a different character, and each featuring contrasting forces – strings and woodwinds; trumpets; and timpani.
The Suite opens with a Rondeau, a grand fanfare (also known as the “Masterpiece Theater” theme), with 2 contrasting couplets. The second movement is a graceful minuet, played first by strings and woodwinds, with trumpets and timpani joining in; there are two string couplets in the middle of the movement, followed by a return to the opening minuet. Next is a sprightly march, in 18th-century military style. A short lilting final movement (“Guay”) closes out this work.
Mouret’s formalized style emphasizes rhythmic precision and simplicity of line, and typifies the French style in baroque music.
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.
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.
The root of Brahms’ music lies in the tension between the duple and the triple rhythmic pulse. The inspiration for this can be traced back to his great fondness for the so-called “gypsy” music of Hungary.
In 1852, as a nineteen-year-old pianist, the young Brahms accompanied the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi, whose musical style was greatly influenced by the verve and freedom of the gypsy violin. Brahms developed a great affection for this style and in 1869 wrote his Hungarian Dances for piano duet based upon Magyar folk melodies. He later orchestrated many of these Dances and they are part of our standard repertoire today.
Fauré was commissioned to write the music for this suite by Prince Albert I of Monaco in 1919 as accompaniment to a choreographic divertissement. This “staged entertainment” was inspired by a Paul Verlaine poem and premiered in Monte Carlo.
In 1920, Fauré arranged the music as a four-movement suite. It consists of a Mozartian overture; a menuet and gavotte in faintly baroque style, and a final pastorale.
Of interest from a composition point of view is that the first three movements were, essentially, orchestrations of earlier works that Fauré had composed for piano some 50 years earlier. The dreamlike, wistful pastorale was composed in 1919, just 5 years before his death.
By profession an eminent chemist and professor, Borodin (1833-1887) was also a member of a Russian musical circle which included Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
While his musical output was not large, it includes some of the best-known Russian classical works, including a number of symphonies, his D Major string quartet (with the famous Nocturne), and his masterpiece, the opera Prince Igor.
The Polovtsian Dances come from the second act of the opera, in which the Khan of the Polovtsi, a Mongol tribe, is entertaining Prince Igor, whom he has taken captive.
While a chorus is used when the dances are played in the opera, they are often played by instruments alone in a concert setting, as we are doing today. An initial processional characterized by wind solos against a plucked string and harp accompaniment gives way to a series of dances alternatively featuring dancing girls, warriors (fast descending clarinet motif); and young boys (leaping wind and string motifs). An accelerating coda brings the piece to its conclusion.
The Bach family of central Germany was prolific, producing generations of musicians from the 16th through the 19th centuries. While its greatest exemplar was undoubtedly Johann Sebastian Bach, many other Bach family members achieved local and international renown as instrumentalists and composers.
One of these was Johann Bernhard Bach, who was Johann Sebastian’s cousin and contemporary. He studied organ with his father (Johann Aegidius Bach) and then took up successive posts as organist and harpsichordist in Erfurt, Magdeburg and Eisenach, where he worked from 1703 until his death in 1749.
Besides his instrumental talents, Johann Bernhard was also a gifted composer. While little of his work has survived, the works that have come down to us include four orchestral suites. The suites show Georg Philipp Telemann’s influence (as was remarked by contemporaries); Johann Bernhard probably became acquainted with Telemann in Eisenach (where Telemann also worked from 1706-1712). Of interest, Johann Sebastian so esteemed his cousin’s suites that he was involved in copying them for his own use (which is how they were preserved).
The G major suite we are playing today is scored for strings and continuo, to which we have added oboes and bassoons as was often done at the time. The work opens with an “overture” in French style, with stately and sprightly sections. After that there are six contrasting movements based on stylized French dances, which alternately convey elegance, gaiety, introspection and joy.
This six-movement serenade was Brahms first major orchestral work and was published in 1860. While Brahms initially intended this piece to be an octet, he first expanded it into a work for small orchestra and finally settled on this version for large orchestra.
The D Major Serenade has a youthful feel to it and is altogether more lighthearted than the later symphonies and other orchestral works Brahms composed. The initial Allegro is somewhat rustic in manner. It opens with bagpipe-like lower string drones and horn calls, which give way to weightier string and wind passages. The second theme features a rising arpeggio-like motif played first by the violins and bassoon and echoed by the ‘celli, and is followed by a more relaxed triple-time motif, featuring violas and oboes, before leading to an orchestral climax. A development section explores the opening themes in a number of different keys before returning to the opening horn theme. The movement ends in a soft graceful fashion with flute, violas and lower strings.
The second movement is a mysterious Scherzo, interspersed with waltz-like melodies in the violins and ‘cellos and a faster Trio section heralded by the winds. The Adagio consciously evokes the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, with simple wind and string melodies supported by soft fast-moving string passages.
The contrasting Menuettos offer a refreshing respite, with clarinets and bassoon alternating with the strings. The short Scherzo which follows features stirring horn calls, picked up in turn by the rest of the orchestra.
The closing Rondo features a robust opening theme in the ‘celli, violas and winds, repeated in several guises. A soaring second theme is announced by the violins and picked up by the winds; other motifs, based on initial underlying accompaniments, make their appearance. After a short passage that seems to evoke Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the piece closes in an optimistic joyous fashion.
This is one of Bach’s best-known works for large orchestral ensemble. It was probably composed in the 1720s originally as a suite for strings and oboes, to which trumpets and timpani were later added.
It is a work in 5 movements, made up of an Overture (prelude), Air, and three dance movements (Gavottes I & II, Bourée and Gigue). The opening movement is a “slow-fast-slow” Overture in highly formalized French baroque style, made more brilliant by the use of trumpets and timpani. This is followed by a sprightly section in fugal style, which includes chamber-music like interludes featuring single strings and winds, after which the movement reverts back to the slow opening style.
The heart of this suite is the second movement Air (popularly known as the “Air on the G string,” even though it is certainly not played all on that string!). The Air is both tender and atmospheric. It is grounded on a “walking” ‘cello-bass line, and features an interplay among the first violin melody line and motifs brought out by the second violins and violas.
While the dance movements which follow the Air are more typical of the traditional suite style, Bach uses trumpets and timpani for additional instrumental color and highlights. The two Gavottes are paired 4/4 dance movements, with Gavotte II featuring contrasting loud and soft sections. They are followed by a fast Bourée. The suite ends with the closing Gigue, with trumpet and string passages evoking hunting calls.