Polovtsian Dances

Polovtsian Dances

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.

Orchestral Suite No. 2 in G Major

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.

Serenade No. 1

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.

Third Orchestral Suite

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.

Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1

In the early to mid-twentieth century, as the revival of interest in early music continued and intensified, composers explored the possibilities of this music using a modern orchestral sound.

Some of the more notable are the Pulcinella Suite of Stravinsky, the Stokowski Bach transcriptions, the Ricercare from the Musical Offering by Bach/Webern, and the Suite of French Dances arranged by Paul Hindemith.

The Ancient Airs and Dances of Respighi falls into such a category. In each of these composers’ efforts, what is basically an arrangement or transcription of existing earlier music inevitably shows the contemporary stamp of it’s arranger, and the techniques and expression which characterize that particular composer or arranger’s contemporary musical passions as well.

The lute music Respighi used as his source was written for a very quiet and intimate instrument. Respighi manages to find a way to imbue these pieces with his own particular kind of broad orchestral color. Traditional dance forms, in addition to their Italian heritage, also likely appealed to Respighi’s sense of color and variety, lending themselves to the kind of instrumental treatment he used in his own compositions.

Suite No. 1 from “The Three-Cornered Hat”

Falla was a quintessentially Spanish composer who partially developed his style while living in Paris, between 1907 and 1914. There he became well-acquainted with Ravel, Debussy and Dukas.

He originally composed the music for The Three-Cornered Hat in 1917 to accompany a pantomime based on a story by the late 19th-century Spanish writer Pedro Alarcón. The famous impresario Diaghilev persuaded Falla to turn the music into a full ballet, which was premiered in London in 1919, with sets by Picasso and choreography by Massine. Falla later arranged the music into two separate orchestral suites, the first of which we are performing today.

The story focuses on an ugly and misshapen miller and his beautiful wife, who is very much in love with him; the Corregidor, a local magistrate who wears a large three-cornered hat as a sign of his office; and a series of amorous pursuits and mistaken identities (with a happy ending).

After a short introductory fanfare, the piece opens to an afternoon scene in a small Andalusian village. The miller and his wife, amid their daily tasks, are trying to teach a bird to tell the time; they kiss, then dance.

Announced by the bassoon, the Corregidor appears; he is captivated by the pretty miller’s wife, but leaves the scene after a disapproving glance from his own wife. The miller’s wife dances a rousing Fandango, featuring a typically Spanish meter alternating between 3 and 2.

The Corregidor appears again; the miller’s wife politely curtsies, and then begins a flirtatious dance, teasing the Corregidor with a bunch of grapes which she keeps just out of his reach. The Corregidor stumbles and falls, and storms off. The miller and his wife dance again, reprising the Fandango theme, to end the Suite.

“Don Quixote” Suite

“Don Quixote” Suite

During his long and productive life (1681-1767), Telemann became one of the most celebrated of baroque composers. His output was vast, ranging from operas and cantatas to concertos and intimate chamber works.

One of his most charming pieces is the programmatic Don Quixote suite for strings and continuo. The suite opens conventionally enough, with a formal French-style baroque overture. The movements which follow, however, depict different scenes from the adventures of Don Quixote, Cervantes’ famous knight, and his squire, Sancho Panza.

It begins with the “Awakening of Don Quixote,” with string drones evoking sleep, followed immediately by the “attack on the Windmills,” with furiously rushing string passages. “Sighs for Princess Aline” features accented descending eighth notes characteristic of 18th-century passages evoking “tender” emotions. “Sancho Panza Swindled” has a rough peasant atmosphere, depicting the squire being tossed in a blanket. “Rosinante Galloping” evokes the smooth stride of Don Quixote’s horse, while “The Gallop of Sancho Panza’s Mule” shows the ungainly “start-stop” step of the squire’s transport. The Suite closes with “Don Quixote at Rest,” also featuring string drones.

Le Tombeau de Couperin

Ravel first composed Tombeau as a suite for piano in six movements, and then arranged it as a 4-movement suite for orchestra in 1919.

A “tombeau” was, in the French baroque tradition, a composition meant as a memorial, and each movement of Ravel’s Tombeau is dedicated to a friend who perished in World War I.

The reference to “Couperin” evokes one of France’s great baroque composers, and indeed the four movements of this work are based largely on baroque French dance forms. Ravel’s genius is to fuse these baroque frameworks with modern harmonies and instrumentation to create works of atmosphere, charm and grace.

The opening Prélude is a cascade of motifs led by the oboe (which has a virtuosic part in this entire work). The dance movements all have main sections with contrasting interludes. The Forlane is a wistful modern rendering of a stately dance, evolving into ever more unearthly harmonies until its resolution; the Menuet is a charming updating of an old classic; and the Rigaudon, with woodwind and brass highlights, provides a rousing finale.

Appalachian Spring

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.

Overture No. 11 in D Major

The life of William Boyce (1711-1779) spanned the flowering of the baroque era through early classicism. Boyce was active in official London music circles, becoming Composer to the Chapel Royal in 1736 and Master of the King’s Musick in 1755.

He composed a number of symphonies, concerti grossi and overtures for various combinations of strings and winds (although his best-known work is the song “Heart of Oak” which he wrote for a theatrical pantomime).

He published his twelve overtures in 1770, still mostly in high baroque style. They are based largely on celebratory Odes for royal birthdays which Boyce was required to write as part of his official duties.

Overture No. 11 is based on the 1766 Birthday Ode and features strings, oboes, bassoon, trumpets and timpani. The trumpets and timpani play a prominent role, particularly in the formal introduction and the fugue which follows.

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