Ligeti, Liszt, and Bartók

Ligeti gettin jiggy wit it.

This weekend (May 25-28), guest conductor Jaime Martín conducts the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in music by Bartók, Liszt, and Ligeti. It’s Ligeti’s centenary–he was born on May 28, 2023, and died June 12, 2006–which means that he’s getting programmed a bit more often than usual, although still not as often as some of us would like. Also on the program is the rising young virtuoso George Li, whose presence on a Liszt and Ligeti bill pleases me with its lilting plethora of ells.

I wrote these notes for the concert, the last installment of the regular concert season. (I’ll keep updating my blog, though; I have a capacious backlog.)

Martín Conducts Ligeti, Liszt, and Bartók

by Rene Spencer Saller

György Ligeti (1923–2006): Concert Românesc für Orchester (Romanian Concerto)

Ligeti was born into a Jewish Hungarian family in Transylvania who moved to Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca, in northwestern Romania) during his infancy. In 1941, unable to pursue his goal of becoming a scientist because of the Jewish quotas at the local university, he began studying composition at the nearby conservatory, then walking all the way to Budapest in the summertime so he could take lessons there as well. World War II not only interrupted his formal training but also destroyed his family: his father and brother were forced into Nazi concentration camps, where they died, and in 1944 Ligeti himself was sent to a labor camp. He survived the Holocaust, as did his mother, who had been imprisoned at Auschwitz.

When the war ended, Ligeti resumed his studies at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. After graduating in 1949, he spent a year researching Romanian folk music, collecting recordings and making transcriptions much as the Hungarian composers Bartók and Kodály—both significant influences on the young Ligeti—had done a generation or two earlier. In 1950 he was appointed professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Academy. As a composer, he focused on exploring the folk idiom (the Romanian Concerto is a sterling example) and tried not to violate the dictates of Socialist Realism, however tedious and oppressive he found them. 

When the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 failed and he could no longer endure the creative and political restrictions imposed by the Soviets, he moved to Vienna and then Cologne, where his style underwent a dramatic change, moving away from the essentially tonal, folk-derived idiom of his Soviet years to a less accessible, sometimes even strategically hostile, musical language. He worked with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Electronic Music Studio of Westdeutscher Rundfunk until 1959, when Ligeti chose a still more independent path, moving away from formulaic and systematic compositional techniques—all those established schools and scenes—to an equally challenging but more organic and inquisitive approach.

It is this Ligeti—dense, uncompromising, micropolyphonic—whom my friends in noise ensembles and experimental rock bands mostly worship, and for good reason: Ligeti was hardcore before there was a word for it. Many of us were formed by our first, indelible exposure to his music by way of the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which used Ligeti’s 1966 choral piece Lux aeterna (without his authorization) to accompany the scene in which the rocket shuttle approaches the lunar monolith site. Elsewhere in the film Kubrick used portions of Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Requiem (1963–65). However disrespectful, the director’s violation of Ligeti’s intellectual property rights spawned legions of ardent young Ligeti fans, allowing his music to reach listeners who likely would never have heard of him otherwise. His influence is incalculable, but it often goes unnoticed, possibly because his style never stagnated over the many decades of his career, and it touched so many people who don’t attend conservatories or engage with traditional concert culture, from aging punk rockers to Gen Z–ish aspiring cinéastes encountering Kubrick and Ligeti for the first time in college film classes. 

A Closer Listen

Completed in 1951, the Romanian Concerto reflects Ligeti’s attempt to sneak his microtonal experiments into a seemingly “safe” (under Soviet strictures) musical context: the folk-derived concerto, in the tradition of Bartók and others. But as Ligeti explains in his program note, even traditional folk music could end up in the censors’ crosshairs if it was sufficiently dissonant. 

Cast in four movements, the concerto lasts about 15 minutes in the average performance. The orchestra calls for three horns, with the third seated at some distance. Ligeti composed the first two movements by adapting his 1950 composition Ballad and Dance for Two Violins. The first movement, a gracious and enveloping Andantino, deploys fourth and fifth intervals to create harmonies that sound both ancient and (to our modern ears anyway) crazy-future. The second movement, a fleet-footed, percussion-rich dance with scampering violin and piccolo passages, is played attaca, which means it immediately follows the first, without the customary pause between movements. In the third-movement Adagio ma non troppo, also played attaca, one horn recalls material from the opening Andantino while another, positioned at some distance, evokes a distant alphorn response; rather than the conventional equal temperament, Ligeti calls for the horns to use natural tuning, which often sounds dissonant to modern ears. The “alphorn” effect returns at the end of the finale, but not until Ligeti has doled out generous portions of mysteriously buzzing strings and a fiddle-flavored, Roma-inspired violin solo that whips the rest of the orchestra into a righteous tizzy.     

The Composer Speaks

“In 1949… I learned how to transcribe folk songs from wax cylinders at the Folklore Institute in Bucharest. Many of these melodies stuck in my memory and led in 1951 to the composition of my Romanian Concerto. However, not everything in it is genuinely Romanian as I also invented elements in the spirit of the village bands. I was later able to hear the piece at an orchestral rehearsal in Budapest—a public performance had been forbidden. Under Stalin’s dictatorship, even folk music was allowed only in a ‘politically correct’ form, in other words, if forced into the straitjacket of the norms of Socialist Realism: major–minor harmonizations… were welcome, and even modal orientalisms in the style of Khachaturian were still permitted, but Stravinsky was excommunicated. The peculiar way in which village bands harmonized their music, often full of dissonances and ‘against the grain,’ was regarded as incorrect. In the fourth movement of my Romanian Concerto there is a passage in which an F sharp is heard in the context of F major. This was reason enough for the apparatchiks responsible for the arts to ban the entire piece.” —György Ligeti

Franz Liszt (1811–1886): Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra

Liszt may not have invented the symphonic poem, but he was the first to call it by that name. He also may not have been the first Romantic rock star—he styled himself after the demonically gifted violinist Niccolò Paganini and wasn’t too proud to admit it—but no one was better suited to the role. He was handsome, exciting, and wildly talented, forever at the vanguard of pianistic technique. He redefined what it meant to be a virtuoso, an entertainer, a celebrity. Rival concertizers came off like sausage-fingered dolts by comparison; noblewomen swooned and bore him illegitimate children. He was gracious to the rude, and he was loyal to the insufferable (including his son-in-law, the brilliant monster Richard Wagner). On and off for almost 60 years, Liszt taught hundreds of students for free. He was a tireless booster of other composers, living and dead. 

He also managed to compose a massive body of work: 13 symphonic poems, two symphonies, two piano concertos, several sonatas, hundreds of vocal pieces, and even organ music. Imaginative and wide-ranging, his music not only distilled the spirit of Romanticism but also gestured beyond it. 

Although Liszt composed at least 20 pieces for piano and orchestra, he completed only two full-fledged piano concertos. The First Piano Concerto, in E-flat major, didn’t receive its premiere until 1855, and he revised it over a quarter-century. A third piano concerto, left unfinished at his death in 1886, was reconstructed in the 1980s.

Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 took years to write. The composer sketched out the main themes in 1830, when he was just 19. For more than two decades, he worked on the score, tweaking and polishing it even after the 1855 premiere. By the time the First Concerto was finished, he was experienced enough to recognize stale formal habits and subvert them in ways that seemed both startling and inevitable. For concert pianists, it is the ultimate bravura showpiece, the Mount Everest of concertos. But its technical difficulties are never an end in themselves. 

A Closer Listen

From the sumptuous first movement to the dreamy, proto-Impressionist second movement, the boldly original scherzo, and the breakneck finale, the concerto’s four movements are richly varied. Yet they feel coherent, thanks to the compulsively hummable main theme, always a reliable presence behind its myriad disguises. 

Although it’s impossible not to gape in wonder at the shivery trills and fleet-fingered polyrhythms, to marvel over the ways Liszt transforms the piano into a harp, a drum, some kind of strange hybrid instrument, the orchestra is never shortchanged. Liszt, generous on so many levels, gives important cameos to the other instruments: the clarinet that duets with the piano in the first movement; the cellos and basses that introduce the luminous song of the second movement; the assertively pinging triangle that punctuates the scherzo; the oboe that brings it all back home. In the end, the orchestra gets the last two notes.

Béla Bartók (18811945): Concerto for Orchestra

You’d never guess that the Concerto for Orchestrawhich ranks among Bartók’s most popular and accessible works, was the product of a sad, impoverished, terminally ill man. But working on the commission gave the Hungarian expat a much-needed boost, and his concerto traced a similar per aspera ad astra trajectory. He explained his intentions in his own program notes: “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first moment and the lugubrious death-song of the third to the life-assertion of the last one.” His theme isn’t about mere survival; it’s about the will to live.

In 1940, after the death of his mother, Bartók fled Nazi-occupied Hungary for the United States, where he spent the last five years of his life. Although he settled in New York, with his much-younger wife, he never truly left his native country behind. His musical language was steeped in the folk idioms of the Eastern European countryside. 

For years he and Zoltán Kodály had logged countless hours as musical documentarians, using Western notation and early portable recording phonographs to capture Hungarian, Slovak, and Romanian folk melodies from indigenous singers. Those years of immersive field work meant that Bartók carried his homeland with him, no matter where he happened to be living. 

When Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky commissioned the concerto, Bartók was perilously poor, depressed, and racked with high fevers caused by undiagnosed leukemia. He weighed only 87 pounds. Aware of Bartók’s grim circumstances and his stoic refusal of charity, Koussevitzky offered him a $1000 advance to compose a new orchestral work in memory of Koussevitzky’s late wife. Although the Russian-born entrepreneur really wanted to cover Bartók’s medical expenses and probably never expected him to fulfill the assignment, Bartók was buoyed by the prospect. He set out for a sanatorium at Lake Saranac in upstate New York, where he finished the Concerto for Orchestra in less than eight weeks. He orchestrated it the following winter, while recuperating in North Carolina.

The Composer Speaks

“The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner. The ‘virtuoso’ treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the perpetuum mobile–like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.” —Béla Bartók, from his own program notes

A Closer Listen

Cast in five movements, the concerto boasts brisk contrasts and weird symmetries. It’s a storehouse of stylistic touchstones: Bach fugues, peasant folk songs, angular tonal experiments, birdsong, night music. There’s even a jab at Dmitri Shostakovich’s recent “Leningrad” Symphony, which Bartók considered a celebration of state violence and duly despised. 

The first movement, Introduzione, starts slowly and mysteriously, then develops into a swifter fugato section. Presentando le coppie, or “Presentation of the Couples,” contains five sections in which instrumental pairs (bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and muted trumpets) are separated by specific intervals (minor sixths, minor thirds, minor sevenths, fifths, and major seconds, respectively). Elegia, the central Andante, is a poignant nocturne based on three themes derived from the first movement. The fourth movement, Intermezzo interotto (“interrupted intermezzo”), pits Eastern European folk tunes against a parodic quotation from Shostakovich (itself a quotation from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, which Bartók probably didn’t realize at the time). The propulsive fifth movement brings it all back home with more fugal splendor and folky exuberance. 

Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller

Bela Bartók listening to his wax-cylinder field recordings, collected all over the countryside of Eastern Europe, in countries that no longer exist, really, at least with the same borders. Anyway, Bartók and his pal Zoltan Kodály went around with their recording equipment (they also transcribed folk songs using standard Western notation, making performance notes as needed) like a couple of proto-Lomaxes, and we are all in their debt because they captured tons of stuff that few people cared all that much about at the time. And I am aware that he was young in this photo–young and so handsome!–whereas he was looking quite sick and decrepit when he wrote the Concerto for Orchestra, but hey, it’s my blog, and I’m an admitted flibbertigibbet.

Franz Liszt, in his later years.

An Immortal Passes

What can you say about a woman brave enough to hang one-handed off the Eiffel Tower? IN SPIKE HEELS? People say the vertiginous scope of the background is mostly an optical illusion, but I call bullshit. Tina Turner was this brave and graceful every second of her life. You can’t persuade me otherwise.

The magnificent Tina Turner died today, although it feels impossible that such a dynamo could be stilled. Like Grace Bumbry, she was an alumna of Sumner High, on the Northside of St. Louis; back then, before the redlining and the strategic disinvestment, it was a jewel of the public school system, among many.

Tina Turner performing in St. Louis, at the Club Imperial, where she and Ike and the band honed their brilliance.

Way back in 2004 I wrote a review of an Ike Turner reissue that was actually an Ike and Tina record in all but name. In it I tried to describe what made her so electrifying to me from the first second I saw and heard her. If you don’t feel like reading, you can just watch this video from 1975, from The Midnight Special show.

Ike Turner 
His Woman, Her Man 
(Funky Delicacies)

It was Ike Turner’s curse and blessing that he hooked up with Anna Mae Bullock, a teenage girl from Nutbush, Tenn. The same might be said of her. She started out as a backup singer in Turner’s band, the Kings of Rhythm; was impregnated by one of said Kings; and then, with a snappy new name and a starring role in the revue, married Turner two years after they met. You’ve seen the movie, so you know how great that turned out. As a husband, Turner was monstrous; as a producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, he was sublime. If you’re one of those either/or types who believe geniuses have to be nice people, or at least not unrepentant dirtbags, remember that Pablo Picasso, Gustav Mahler, John Milton, and countless other cultural heavies all had their moments of misogyny, too. What do we gain by striking them from the canon?

Tina couldn’t help but outshine her mentor and tormentor. Still, even though she sings lead on every track of His Woman, Her Man, this is Ike Turner’s album, not Ike & Tina’s; if you don’t believe it, just look at the CD cover. Call it ungrateful, call it egomaniacal, but allowing Ike the frontman’s spot in this instance seems less unfair when you consider the couple’s careers: Ike is a god to nerdy collectors, but the hoi polloi know him only as the crazy coke fiend who smacked poor Tina around; his ex, on the other hand, she of the killer gams and the major motion pictures and the string of second-heyday hits in the ’80s, is a superstar. Who among us hasn’t whiled away a summer afternoon pretending to be Tina Turner, baring those famous golden thighs, shaking an imaginary shock of coppery hair, screaming and sighing and strutting and signifying like a sex-starved Pentecostal? Who else could sing like that, each phrase razor-blade bright and so sharp it doesn’t even hurt at first when it slices your heart in two? 

But try to hear past Tina’s coruscating wail, the glamour that flares off every gritty syllable, and pause to savor Ike’s instrumental flourishes–the ARP synthesizer fed through a wah-wah pedal, the improbably funky “funk box” (an early drum machine), the oscillator, the countless crazy gadgets he collected at his Bolic Studio. His Woman, Her Man‘s 17 tracks were recorded there in 1970, when Ike, hoping to cultivate a bigger rock audience, began to experiment with what was then cutting-edge technology. 

The results are strange but consistently compelling. Depending on your mood, you might crave the percolating country-soul of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary (The Funky Version),” which Ike and Tina later rerecorded (the somewhat less funky version that anyone who’s ever listened to an oldies station knows by heart). Their first rendition thrums and pulses like the dirty river they’re celebrating, a long, sticky shudder of sound. Another cover, “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” is as viciously sexy as anything the Stones ever recorded, and the percussion (it sounds like kerosene igniting) neatly punctuates Ike’s layers of brilliant guitar filth. 

The weirdest cover, though, has to be Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.” In retrospect, the poignancy of this choice is almost unbearable (she did bleed, of course, and not just during her period); knowing that her abusive husband persuaded her to sing it, against her better judgment, makes it especially painful. 

Fortunately, the mood lifts with the next track, “It’s Groovier Across the Line,” a bouncy sex romp that’s one among many great Ike compositions here. Dig the fried-out guitars on “Brain Game” or the squealing, almost unlistenable synths on “Baby Get It On,” the aural equivalent of crystal meth and undoubtedly the best song you’ve never heard. Every listen yields a new favorite, another if-only classic. His Woman, Her Man might not absolve Ike of his personal transgressions, but it secures his status as an icon.

Copyright 2004 by René Spencer Saller
This review was originally published in the Illinois Times and later reprinted by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (along with my reviews of Wilco and Eminem, it won first place in the annual Association of Alternative Weeklies awards in 2005).

On Birdsong and Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen, transcribing birdsong, which he incorporated in most of his compositions, especially in later decades.

The synesthete and mystic-slash-ecstatic composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) has long been a favorite of mine, but lately I find myself thinking a lot about his use of birdsong. He wasn’t the only composer to transcribe birdsong–Mozart and Beethoven did it, too–but no one listened to birdsong more closely or with greater devotion. According to some estimates, he incorporated the songs of more than 320 birds in his music. According to his colleague and sometime frenemy Pierre Boulez, “what he wrote was his imagination of birdsong.” Imagination aside, Messiaen did meticulous research on his beloved subjects and became something of an ornithological expert in France, and certainly one of the leading authorities on bird vocalizations. When he died, at 83, his widow, Yvonne Martenot, commissioned a bird sculpture for his headstone.

I learned a lot about Messiaen’s use of birdsong from this website, to which I’m sure I will return often.

And why have I been thinking about birdsong so much? It’s the Merlin Bird ID app from Cornell Ornithology lab, my new favorite addiction. So far in my backyard I have recorded a good couple dozen different species, and I’m learning to distinguish them without the Sound ID app being on, although I love to have it on anyway just in case it picks up something I miss. Messiaen lacked this app, but he more than made up for it in his listening and transcribing skills.

I could share any number of bird-related links, but I have chosen Catalogue d’oiseaux, composed between 1956 and 1958; he dedicated it to his second wife, former pupil, and forever muse, the brilliant Yvonne Loriod (1924-2010). Her sister, Jeanne, played the recently invented Ondes Martenot in Messiaen’s extraordinary Turangalîla Symphonie, the only symphony in his substantial catalogue.

Catalogue d’oiseaux contains his transcriptions of songs by more than 80 species of birds, all lovingly labeled in the score. The 13 movements feature birds from the eastern French Alps, then the southern Spanish border, then the northern coast. The composition, which takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes to perform in its entirety, is dedicated to Yvonne, like all of Messiaen’s major piano works since about 1942, when he met the former child prodigy in his harmony class, the first he had taught after being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Loriod impressed him from the start by playing his Eight Preludes from memory. (It wasn’t difficult for her in the slightest, thanks to her photographic memory. By 12 she had memorized all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, as well as Mozart’s concertos. Two years later she had committed Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and all of Chopin and Schumann to memory.) The pupil and professor fell in love right away, but they couldn’t marry until 1961, two years after Messiaen’s first wife, the violinist and composer Claire Delbos, died as a result of cerebral atrophy, after nearly 20 years of suffering from total amnesia and other cognitive problems. Messiaen, a devout if somewhat unconventional Roman Catholic, had sole custody of their only son and wouldn’t consider divorcing her, even after falling in love with Loriod. He visited Delbos often, even though she never recognized him.

Loriod is fascinating in her own right. She was also a respected composer, although her works, unsurprisingly, were seldom performed, and she remains underprogrammed. She spent most of her life playing and promoting her husband’s music.

Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messiaen
Olivier and Yvonne, poring over a score, their love language.

The Composer Speaks

“I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none.”

“It’s probable that in the artistic hierarchy birds are the greatest musicians existing on our planet.”


“The birds are the opposite of time. They represent our longing for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant song.”

A bird’s song is something extraordinary, an absolutely impenetrable chaos, a prodigious entanglement.” 

“[…] In order to translate these timbres, harmonic combinations are absolutely necessary. Even in very fast movements, where I reproduce bird songs either in the orchestra, or on the piano, each note is provided with a chord, not a traditional chord, but a complex of sounds destined to give the timbre of that note. There are as many invented chords as there are notes, which is to say for a bird piece comprising of one or two thousand notes, there are one or two thousand invented chords. It is an enormous task for the imagination….”

“…Birds always sing in a given fashion.  They do not know the octave interval. Their melodic lines often recall the inflections of Gregorian chant. Their rhythms are of infinite complexity and variety, but always of perfect precision and clarity.”

Messiaen at the organ. He would serve as organist at La Trinité, in Paris, for more than 60 years.

Rest easy, Rita Lee

Rita Lee in 2010

The sui generis Brazilian singer Rita Lee died a few days ago, on May 8, and I didn’t want to let the sad occasion go unremarked here, even though I don’t have time to write the tribute she deserves right now. (Filthy lucre! But the good kind.) So I went through the ol’ archives and found a record review that I wrote in 1999 about the great Luaka Bop compilation (curated by David Byrne) Everything is Possible!

The RFT links are always iffy for me, so I’m cutting and pasting the review here instead. And if you don’t have any Os Mutantes records, you could do worse than start with this collection. Really, though, you can’t go wrong with any of it. Back when I did a weekly community radio show on KDHX FM-88, I played a lot of Os Mutantes, probably at least a track or two every month, and found that it always went over well. It’s impossible to quantify but safe to say that Rita Lee’s artistry and charisma are a big part of the timeless appeal.


Everything Is Possible! (Luaka Bop)

By René Spencer Saller on Wed, Jul 21, 1999 at 4:00 am

To say Os Mutantes, a Brazilian trio formed in the late ’60s, were ahead of their time is to understate their singular genius, to suggest that we’ve somehow caught up with them. If only! The music founding members Arnaldo Baptista, Rita Lee Jones, and Sergio Dias created together, a crazy amalgam of psychedelia, bossa nova, experimental rock, samba and pop, is timeless: it sounds as innovative today as it must have sounded 30 years ago, and it will probably sound just as brilliant 30 years from now. Everything Is Possible! is a fabulous compilation of songs the Mutantes recorded between 1968 and 1972, ranging from the trippy, cannabis-inspired “Ando Meio Desligado,” which sets Jones’ silvery vocals against a bass line cribbed from the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” whacked-out keyboards, and distorted electric guitars, to the exquisite “Fuga No. 11,” with its tinkly bells and majestic Sgt. Pepper-inflected strings and horns. Every song on the CD is at once gorgeous and freakish, catchy and cacophonous, familiar and deeply mysterious. It’s no surprise that fans of the Mutantes include Beck, David Byrne, Stereolab’s Tim Gane, Arto Lindsay, and the late Kurt Cobain (who tried unsuccessfully to convince them to reunite so they could open for Nirvana in 1993).

With Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Z, and Gal Costa, Os Mutantes were part of the Tropicália movement, an avant-garde group of leftist musicians who sought to revolutionize Brazilian pop culture with the use of electric instruments, subversive humor, far-out stage personas, and surreal arrangements. They pissed off just about everybody, from uptight leftist folkies (think of the guy who screamed “Judas!” during Bob Dylan’s electric tour in 1966) to the draconian military dictatorship, which effectively killed the movement shortly after its inception by arresting Gil and Velosa and forcing them into exile. Even under censorship, however, Os Mutantes continued to record, releasing a handful of albums (the first three, reissued on the Omplatten label, are highly recommended) before they broke up for good in 1978. Live, they dressed up like Sancho Panza, a pregnant bride, and space aliens. They wrote songs with outrageous titles such as “Ave Lucifer” (“Hail Lucifer”). They created their own instruments, from the backwards wah-wah pedal on “Dia 36” to the can of bug spray used in place of a high hat on “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour.” What more could anyone want from a band? They’ll blow your mind, they’ll crack you up, they’ll steal your heart, and they’ll make you believe that everything is possible.

Copyright 1999 by René Spencer Saller

Orffully Popular!

The German composer Carl Orff, looking like someone I’m rather certain I would like.

I have been doing this program-book annotation work for about 10 years now, possibly a little longer, since I never seemed to bother paying attention to when I started. But I think I can say with some confidence that this is the first program I have ever written about that came with a warning, to wit: “PLEASE NOTE:  Carmina Burana addresses adult themes and contains some adult language.” (Catulli Carmina, also on the program, probably contains more, but I digress.)

At any rate, I write about Orff fairly often, and I always resist the urge to use any of the atrocious name-based puns that flap around in my sorry noggin like deranged bats. But this is my blog–I pay for it entirely myself and do not profit from it in any way that would interest my accountant–and I’m going to share one of my Orfful Orff puns in the headline. I have always felt that it’s supremely unfair to mock people for their given names, but when the composer has been dead for a long time, I think it’s slightly more forgivable. Or less Orfful. (Please let this usage exorcise my demons)

Here are the notes I wrote for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert that’s taking place tonight and this weekend at the Meyerson.

Luisi Conducts Orff

by René Spencer Saller

Carl Orff (18951982): Catulli Carmina (Songs of Catullus)

If you are alive today, chances are you have been exposed to the influence of Orff. Don’t recognize the name? Doesn’t matter. You probably had a grade-school music teacher who did. Maybe you lucked out and got to attend an elementary school with a collection of Orff instruments, specially chosen percussion instruments tuned to sound harmonious even in (especially in!) untrained hands, and maybe you learned about pitch and meter by playing Orff-prescribed games and using your body in motion to express these abstractions, as my public grade-school classmates and I did, in an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis in the 1970s. 

But even if you never took a music class, you can surely hum the main hook to Orff’s “O Fortuna,” from his iconic Carmina Burana, whose ubiquity in the popular culture is, as Alex Ross memorably quipped, “proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever.” Orff’s music might not have a message, but it is an undeniably effective vehicle. His musical language—relentless rhythms, hammered-home melodies, crude harmonies—helped the Nazis sell their poison, and the same music helped sell laundry detergent a generation later.

The late musicologist and critic Richard Taruskin rejected the art-for-art’s-sake argument that music is essentially innocent, pointing out that questions about Orff’s intentions—specifically regarding the use of his music by the Nazis—are irrelevant because “[t]hey allow the deflection of any criticism of his work into irrelevant questions of rights: Orff’s right to compose his music, our right to perform and listen to it. Without questioning either, one may still regard his music as toxic, whether it does its animalizing work at Nazi rallies, in school auditoriums, at rock concerts, in films, in the soundtracks that accompany commercials, or in [the concert hall].” (With no disrespect toward Taruskin’s memory, I’d be astonished if you leave the Meyerson tonight any more animalized than you were upon entering it.)

The commentator Anne-Charlotte Rémond of France Musique recently observed that if Orff’s music isn’t “Nazi art,” it’s art “made for Nazis.” For many that’s a distinction with no real difference. Never mind that Orff never actually joined the Nazi party, or that his music wasn’t universally admired by Nazi listeners; one prominent Nazi critic, in fact, argued that Carmina Burana, with its pungent “jazzy atmosphere” and “incomprehensible” Latin text, reflected the decadence and depravity of the Weimar Republic, not the wholesome athleticism that the Nazis tried to celebrate in their racist and revisionist interpretation of ancient history. But with a few vocal exceptions, the Nazis loved Carmina Burana, programming it repeatedly until the regime was defeated after World War II.

If not quite a one-hit wonder, Orff remains a somewhat enigmatic, even polarizing figure. He completed Catulli Carmina in 1943, two years after receiving the commission and about six years after his breakthrough work, Carmina Burana Catulli Carmina received its premiere during World War II. With Trionfo di Afrodite, from 1953, the three works form a conceptual trilogy, but the two later installments never took off like their predecessor and are virtually unknown today. But whether acknowledged or not, Orff’s influence can be heard in the driving rhythms of John Adams, the hypnotic ostinatos of Glass and Cage. There’s a reason that generations of listeners have found his music so compelling, and it has little to do with politics or anything that cerebral: Orff made music that speaks to the body and to the subconscious.

Although Orff had loved the classics since childhood, he was 35 years old when he first encountered Catullus’s Odi et Amo (c. 85), while on holiday at Lake Garda, in northern Italy. He saw a postcard with the poem on it and instantly heard it as music in his head. When he returned to Germany, he bought an edition of Catullus poems and chose 10 to set for mixed choir, which he then edited in a two-volume set titled Catulli Carmina, in 1931 and 1932, respectively. 

When his Carmina Burana grew increasingly popular, theater directors requested more musical material to fill out their programs, so Orff revised the score, adding and deleting certain poems and surrounding them with a “framing” story, which places the drama within a drama, enhancing the artificiality of the narrative. The new version of Catulli Carmina—which he now called ludi scaenici, or a scenic cantata, and no longer a collection of songs for mixed choir—premiered on November 6, 1943, at the Leipzig Opera. 

A Closer Listen

The cantata contains three parts: a prelude, a central section made up of Catullus poems, and a short postlude that repeats the main ideas of the prelude. Orff scored it for a full mixed choir, soprano and tenor soloists (portraying Lesbia and Catullus, respectively), and an entirely percussive orchestra, thought to be inspired by Stravinsky’s Les noces: four pianos, four timpani, castanets, maracas, antique cymbal, tam-tam, lithophone, metallophone, two glockenspiels, xylophone, tenor xylophone, and more. The orchestra plays only in the prelude and postlude; in the play-within-the-play, the soloists are accompanied only by the chorus, which also functions as a traditional Greek chorus.

Orff uses Catullus poems for the bulk of the text, but he wrote the prelude, the framing device that turns the selected poems into a play within a play. The plot, such as it is, involves a group of exuberant young horndogs who, in the prelude, describe what they want to do to one another in pornographic detail, if not quite in grammatical Latin. Then a chorus of elderly crabasses propose a lecture in the form of dramatized Catullus poems, all designed to prove conclusively that love is for losers and nothing lasts. The young folk agree to listen attentively.

The internal play begins with the entrance of Catullus, accompanied by the chorus singing Odi et amo (“I hate and I love”). When his beloved Lesbia appears, he sings Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus (“let us live, my Lesbia, and love”). Eventually, though, Lesbia proves untrue by dancing in front of a tavern, loitering on corners, and engaging in other activities for which Catullus tries to slut-shame her. Conflicted, he sleeps outside her front door and dreams of their reconciliation. Meanwhile, the real-life Lesbia sings him a lullaby while he sleeps (Dormi, dormi, dormi ancora—note that it’s in Italian, not Latin, a sign that she’s a modern lady). But Catullus wakes with a jolt when he hears the bass voice, and he experiences an epiphany: his friend Caelius, to whom he has often confided, is Lesbia’s secret lover—cuckolded by his best pal!

After much anguished back and forth with the pleading Lesbia, Catullus decides that her actions have ruined him and he can neither love nor hate her now. The score boasts several memorable passages, including some bel canto soprano numbers worthy of Delibes. Then, in one of the best punch lines in the history of the cantata form, Orff subverts the entire spectacle by showing, in the postlude, that the production was a waste of time. No longer willing to endure the sour old dudes and their strange diatribes, the young people blithely resume hooking up.

Carmina Burana 

After the successful premiere of his scenic cantata Carmina Burana, Orff issued the following instructions to his music publisher:

“Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”

First performed by the Oper Frankfurt on June 8, 1937, Orff’s Carmina Burana is based on a collection of poems by a motley assortment of itinerant monks, scholars, and other speakers of Latin, the lingua franca of the medieval age. Old French and Middle-High German, along with macaronic hybrids, add linguistic variety to these stubbornly secular, often bawdy verses, which touch on the corruption of the clergy, the benefits of intoxication, the sorrow of love, the glories of nature, and the pitiless wheel of fortune that determines our destinies. The original manuscript dates to the early 13th century. Lost for centuries before being rediscovered at a Benedictine abbey near Munich, the score was first published in 1847. 

With the help of Michel Hofmann, his fellow classics enthusiast, Orff selected two dozen poems from the collection and set them to music. “It’s not sophisticated, not intellectual,” he wrote, “There is a spiritual power behind my work, and that’s why it is accepted throughout the world.”

Orff In and Out of Time

Another way to understand Orff’s work is by understanding Orff, who was both a product of his culture and also something of an aberration.

Born in Munich, which was then part of imperial Wilhelmine Germany, Orff was brought up in a Bavarian military family, in a culture that understood itself to be the natural extension of both Athens and Rome, an aspirational lineage connecting the not-yet-unified Germany with the Golden Age of the Greco-Roman empire. Even as a young composer in post-WWI Germany, Orff, who studied at the Munich Academy of Music from 1912–14, was a devoted antiquarian. Although he set the occasional text by a contemporary or near-contemporary, such as the unapologetically leftist German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, or by canonical German poets such as Heinrich Heine and Friederich Hölderlin, Orff increasingly preferred engaging with centuries-old Latin and Archaic Greek texts by Catullus and Sappho, the primary sources for Carmina catullus and Trionfo, respectively. For his musical enjoyment he preferred poring over the scores of J.S. Bach, Monteverdi, and other early composers of choral music. And although his parents were devout Roman Catholics, Orff lost his religion fairly early and chose not to have his own daughter baptized.

Like most of his non-Jewish colleagues, Orff remained in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, although he never went so far as to join the Nazi Party. He was drafted into the German Army in August 1917 but was quickly incapacitated in a trench collapse and spent months recovering from his serious injuries. When he was healthy again, he began to work in various administrative capacities for opera houses while studying music and dance and developing his pedagogical theory, which he called Schulwerk. Although he associated with a leader of the Resistance who was later executed, he distanced himself from politics, mostly by keeping to himself and making the kind of art that wasn’t likely to endanger himself or his family. He wasn’t notably brave, and he was no doubt relieved when the Nazis put him on a list of approved composers they called the Gottbegnadeten (Those Graced by God, or Those with God-Given Talent—which would no doubt be more impressive as a title if Nazis hadn’t bestowed it). 

Though not technically a Nazi, Orff was a member of the Reichsmusikkammer, a requirement for all active musicians in the Third Reich. And despite any reservations he might have expressed privately, he did agree to compose new music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to replace Mendelssohn’s classic score, which the authorities had banned on account of the composer’s Jewish ancestry—never mind that Mendelssohn had been a devout Lutheran since childhood. And never mind that one of Orff’s Catholic grandparents was a former Jew turned Catholic. The Nazis weren’t ideologically consistent, and they didn’t need to be. As with any genocidal regime, approval was granted or denied according to the whims of the powerful.

 After completing his denazification process in 1946, Orff was rated “Grey C, acceptable,” a designation intended for Germans who were “compromised by their actions during the Nazi period but not subscribers to Nazi doctrine.” He married four times and was thrice divorced. His only child, Godela Orff, was born in 1921, to his first wife, the singer Alice Solscher. Although the couple separated about six months after Godela’s birth and divorced in 1927, Orff assumed primary custody of his daughter when her mother moved to Australia in 1930. Orff’s relationship with Godela was often rocky, with periods of estrangement, but they reconciled about a decade before his death, at age 86, from cancer. His tombstone, which is located in the Andechs monastery, bears the Latin inscription Summus Finis (the Ultimate End), a quotation from the end of his final work, De temporum fine comoedia.

A Closer Listen

Orff’s score bears a lengthy Latin subtitle, which, in translation, reads: “Profane songs to be sung by soloists and chorus with an accompaniment of instruments and magic tableaux.” By turns crude and celestial, the songs reflect Orff’s passion for the plainchant of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. As anyone who has ever sung it will attest, some of it amounts to vocal-cord torture. The aria Olem lacus colueram, for instance, is sung almost entirely in falsetto, straining the poor solo tenor’s voice to the breaking point—which makes sense when you remember that the lines are sung from the perspective of a roasting swan. A wildly erotic passage in “Cours d’amour” forces the soprano soloist to reach beyond the upper limits of her range, creating an exquisite tension. 

“In all my work,” Orff wrote, “my final concern is not with musical but with spiritual exposition.” This claim might seem at odds with the visceral, almost orgiastic sonic thrust of Carmina Burana, but Orff, like the medieval poets who inspired him, knew that the spiritual and the profane are spokes of the same cosmic wheel.
Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller

Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust

Hector Berlioz, exhibiting ennui.

I’m currently listening to the live radio broadcast of the St. Louis Symphony and SLSO Chorus (along with a couple of children’s choruses) performing Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. Thinking about it made me remember that I actually wrote about this oratorio in 2015, for the Dallas Symphony, and since none of my old links here seem to work, I will cut and paste my program notes for your perusal. I do love Berlioz, both as a composer and as a prose stylist and music critic-slash-theorist. Wagner, who ripped him off flagrantly, named a rooster Berlioz and did not mean it to be a compliment (more like a joke about Berlioz’s appearance, as if old Dick were one to talk). But I digress. Here are my notes from 2015.

Finding Faust

Fausts abound. Whether in literary accounts by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe or the German Romantic icon Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; or in musical works by Liszt, Schumann, Gounod, and Wagner; or in legends surrounding the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini and 20th-century blues master Robert Johnson, the stories vary only in the particulars. A desperate man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for something he craves. Centuries later, we can’t stop wondering: Would we make that deal? 

Like most young men of his cultural milieu, Hector Berlioz came to Faust by way of Goethe, whose Faust he read in 1828, shortly after Gérard de Nerval’s French translation was published. The 24-year-old aspiring composer, who had recently dropped out of medical school to study at the Paris Conservatoire, became obsessed with the German master’s verse drama. As Berlioz later wrote in his Memoirs, “I could not put it down. I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theatre, in the street.”

In a fit of inspiration, he composed what he would briefly call his Opus 1: “Eight Scenes from Faust.” He sent a copy of the score to Goethe, who never replied. Soon thereafter, Berlioz tracked down every published copy of “Eight Scenes” that he could find and destroyed it. He assigned Op. 1 to his next composition, as if this Faust attempt had never happened.

Until 1845, that is, when Berlioz—by now 41 years old and a successful composer—returned to the Faust project during a concert tour of central Europe. With some textual assistance from Almire Gandonnière, Berlioz wrote most of La Damnation de Faust on the road, recycling some of the material that he’d sent to Goethe years earlier. The Faust he completed in 1846 wasn’t so much an ingenious riff on the source text as a radical revision of it. Berlioz wanted “neither to translate nor to imitate Goethe’s masterpiece,” he explained, “but simply to take my inspiration from it and extract the musical essence it contained.”

In previous versions of the Faust story, including Goethe’s, the particulars changed, but not the broad outlines. In Berlioz’s Faust, the hero goes to Hell, eternally damned. On one level, he sacrifices himself because he wants to save his beloved Marguerite. On the other, less noble level, he winds up in Hell because he, like so many of us, neglected to read the fine print of a contract. Yes, he should have been more suspicious—the spooky-looking stranger is named Méphistophélès, for pity’s sake—but then again, you’d think a heroine worthy of music as sublime as Marguerite’s two arias wouldn’t be so idiotic as to accidentally poison her mother. It’s better not to delve too deeply into these logical inconsistencies. As W. H. Auden famously noted, “No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”

What Is It?

The Damnation of Faust isn’t quite an opera. Nor is it exactly an oratorio. First dubbing it a “concert opera,” Berlioz finally settled on “légende dramatique,” or “dramatic legend.” Whatever you call this hallucinatory pastiche of scenes, settings, and sounds, it’s quite literally all over the place, with at least 20 changes of location and a cast of thousands. In the opening scene alone, Berlioz jump-cuts from the solitary Faust, despairing tunefully on a windswept Hungarian plain; to hard-partying peasants, singing in a frenetic round; to an army marching by. The peasants and soldiers are the first of many chorus-embodied characters. The chorus members also portray demons, will-‘o-the-wisps, soldiers, students, drunkards, gossipy neighbors, sylphs, and gnomes. Although a filmmaker could execute Berlioz’s vision, the technology wouldn’t be invented for at least another half-century. Even a 21st-century director might be discouraged by the budgetary considerations of this epic and kaleidoscopic story. The composer understood that his Faust, which he called “an opera without décor or costumes,” could come to life only in the listener’s imagination.

A Closer Listen

Plot aside, the real appeal of Berlioz’s Faust is the music. The startling array of musical styles exists because the drama requires it. In this story of emotional upheavals, life-altering choices, and radical transformations, form follows content because music is an expression of character. In the first two scenes from Part 1, consider the way that Faust’s despair is pitted against the hilarity of the peasants, with their delirious round of ha-ha-has and tra-la-las. Next, the orchestra interrupts Faust’s angst with a Hungarian march that, when performed in Pest some months earlier, caused revolution-ready audiences to go wild with delight. In fact, Berlioz set the opening scene in Hungary because he wanted to insert the piece, and who could blame him? Today the “Hungarian March” remains a staple of the orchestral repertory.

The score is studded with such jewels. Méphistophèles may be an evil trickster, but Berlioz gives him his due in the form of gorgeous arias, such as the incantatory “Voici les roses” in Part 2. Also in Part 2, the drunkard Brander’s song about an unfortunate rat culminates in a savagely sacrilegious fugue, preparing us for Méphistophèles’s equally earthy “Song of the Flea.” Marguerite doesn’t get nearly as much time as many of us mezzo-soprano fans might hope, but Berlioz did grace her with some of the most arresting music in his canon. In Part 3 the exquisite medieval faux-folk of “Autrefois un Roi du Thule” is an art song manqué, as transparently lovely as its hapless singer. Her sublime duet with Faust anticipates those of Wagner’s similarly enchanted and doomed lovers, Tristan and Isolde. Another unforgettable moment is the “Pandemonium” chorus in Part 4, as an assortment of damned souls spew menacing gibberish.

A Synopsis of Berlioz’s Faust

Part 1: As the sun sets over the plains of Hungary, the aging scholar Faust decides that he much prefers the solitary contemplation of nature over social engagement, with all its struggles and disappointments. No reveling peasants nor triumphantly marching armies can distract him from his apathy and isolation. 

Part 2: Alone in his study, in Northern Germany, Faust despairs over his failure to take pleasure in life. About to end his misery by drinking poison, he hears an Easter hymn from a nearby church. The music evokes happy childhood memories of his pure faith and joy in nature, and he exclaims, “Heaven has won me back!” Suddenly, Méphistophèles appears, promising to restore his youthful vitality and fulfill his desires. All he has to do is follow Méphistophèles out of his study so that he can “learn about life and leave the rubbish of philosophy.” Faust agrees, and they leave. Their first stop is a Leipzig basement bar patronized by boisterous drunks, one of whom sings a song about a rat. Méphistophèles offers a song about a prince’s pet flea. Disgusted, Faust asks to leave, and Méphistophèles brings him to a river bank, where he and a chorus of gnomes and sylphs cast a spell that causes Faust to fall asleep and fall in love with the girl in his dream, Marguerite.  After waking, he begs the demon to take him to her. 

Part 3: The two hide in Marguerite’s room. Thanks to a similar enchantment, Marguerite is in love with Faust. She sings a melancholy tune about a faithful king. Méphistophèles and his will-o’-the-wisps leave, and Faust and Marguerite declare their love. The demon returns to inform them that the neighbors are gossipping about the man in Marguerite’s bedroom. Faust and Méphistophèles leave before Marguerite’s elderly mother can discover them. 

Part 4: Alone in her room, Marguerite laments her absent lover, who has apparently forgotten her after several nights of lovemaking. Alone in a forest, Faust communes with nature, apparently unconcerned about the woman he seduced and abandoned. Méphistophèles appears to tell him that Marguerite has been sentenced to death because she accidentally poisoned her mother by administering too much of the sleeping potion that Faust had recommended to facilitate their illicit lovemaking. Distraught, Faust demands that Méphistophèles save her, and the demon demands in turn that Faust sign an employment contract. They gallop away on black horses, but instead of leading him to save Marguerite, Méphistophèles escorts Faust to hell. Meanwhile, Marguerite, the “simple soul that love misled,” is welcomed into heaven. 

Copyright 2015 by René Spencer Saller

Luisi Conducts Negrón, Beethoven, and Brahms

Angélica Negrón, the composer of Arquitecta, which receives its world premiere May 4-7.

This weekend (starting Thursday evening), Music Director Fabio Luisi conducts the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of Angélica Negrón‘s Arquitecta, sung by Lido Pimienta. After the Negrón world premiere, the DSO and pianist Francesco Piemontesi perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The concert concludes with Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, which will be recorded for a future audio release.

Luisi Conducts Negrón, Beethoven, and Brahms

by René Spencer Saller

Angélica Negrón (b. 1981): Arquitecta (World Premiere)

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and now based in Brooklyn, New York, Angélica Negrón is the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence. The multi-instrumentalist, composer, educator, and music journalist has written numerous works for chamber ensembles and orchestras, as well as film scores and assorted pieces for accordions, toys, and electronic and robotic instruments. Her original compositions have been commissioned and performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Kronos Quartet, loadbang, MATA Festival, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Sō Percussion, and the American Composers Orchestra, among others. As a founding member of the transnational electro-acoustic group Balún, she sings and plays accordion and violin. In 2022 the Hermitage Artist Retreat awarded Negrón the Greenfield Prize, which includes a $30,000 commission and a six-week residency.

Negrón received her early training in piano and violin at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico, where she later studied composition with Alfonso Fuentes. She holds a master’s degree in music composition from New York University, where she studied with Pedro da Silva, and she has completed coursework toward a doctorate in composition at The Graduate Center (City University of New York), under Tania León. Her distinctive style filters an eclectic range of influences—Arvo Pärt, Björk, Juana Molina, Meredith Monk, John Cage, and former DSO composer in residence Julia Wolfe, among others—through her unique and wildly fertile imagination. 

Arquitecta, a song that features Colombian Canadian vocalist Lido Pimienta, was co-commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Bravo! Vail. Although Negrón has written several other major vocal works, both for chorus and solo voice, this is her first composition for voice and full orchestra. Augmenting Pimienta’s live singing are sampled voices, an essential part of Arquitecta‘s sound world. 

In a recent conversation with Denise McGovern, DSO Vice President of Communications, Negrón explained that the sampled voices are “mostly in Spanish” or singing something that more closely resembles “sound and gesture than language,” sourced from “the actual recorded voices of women I love and admire who have shaped in some way or another my life—family and friends.”

One of these formative female relationships is with Pimienta. “Lido and I go way back to 2008, when we were both featured in Club Fonograma, an influential music blog dedicated to Latin American and Spanish music and culture,” Negrón explains. “Club Fonograma created a really special online community of Latinx music makers and shaped a lot of the Latinx indie sound with their monthly compilations Fonogramáticos. We heard each other’s music for the first time there and started to correspond virtually and then finally met in person a few years ago in New York. During 2020 we did a collaboration for Prototype Festival with the Puerto Rican comedian and illustrator Mariela Pabón. That said, it was not until I saw her beautiful piece with the New York Ballet, in sky to hold, in [October] 2021 that I realized the potential of her voice as a force in front of an orchestra.”

Negrón refers to Pimienta’s recent score, Lux Aeterna, used in sky to hold, choreographed by Andrea Miller for the New York City Ballet. Among the very few female composers in NYCB history, and the first-ever female composer of color, Pimienta sang her piece on stage with the company. 

Amanda Hernández, the young Puerto Rican woman who wrote the poem that provides the song’s text, describes its mood as equal parts elegiac and optimistic: “I wrote this poem thinking about the house I grew up in, the houses I have lived in and the houses I had to say goodbye to. It’s an ode to the pain that comes with farewell and the celebration of what that ‘new door that opens’ promises when another one closes, or collapses.” 

The Composer Speaks

“In “Arquitecta,” Hernández captures the maternal spirit and its connection to tangible spaces often burdened by a lifetime of memories and labor, both visible and invisible. The physical and emotional weight of caring for family and home transcends the passage of time and endures beyond loss; it ultimately becomes inextricable from the conception of self and, paradoxically, a solace. 

“For the last several years, my mother became her own mother’s primary caregiver—in the wake of my grandmother’s recent death, Hernández’s evocative imagery of the house as Matriarch resonated deeply. Lido Pimienta’s experience as a mother and her vulnerable but powerful voice bring life to Hernández’s celebration of women and the spaces they traditionally inhabit. 

“The piece is a through-composed 10-minute orchestral song. It begins with an extensive, rhythmically driven instrumental introduction, sonically ‘building’ the house of Hernández’s poem through repetitive and increasingly arduous orchestral gestures. From here, the song unfolds with Lido’s voice embodying each verse through expansive melodies and hypnotic melismas, exchanging expressive melodic runs and dynamic shimmering soundscapes with the orchestra. 

“Throughout the song, the orchestra will have recurring moments of flourishes incorporating disjointed fragments of Caribbean music as well as gestures inspired by natural soundscapes from Puerto Rico, sound-painting the landscape within which the house stands. These will be punctuated by occasional electronics in the percussion, sampling everyday household objects as well as environmental recordings, capturing a domestic atmosphere. Joining Lido will be a cascade of sampled female voices—also played live by the percussion—intensifying as the piece develops, building up to a deluge of emotion evoking distant and fragmentary memories from a collective past.” 
—Angélica Negrón

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827): Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

The Third Piano Concerto evolved over years. Beethoven had an idea in 1796, put it aside for a long time, and left the written version of the concerto in flux at the 1803 premiere (the first and last time that he played it in public). Then, in 1804, while writing out the piano part for a student, he revised the C Minor Concerto again. As originally composed, the Third Concerto requires the soloist to play a high G, which is believed to be the earliest instance of that note in the piano repertoire. In 1804, after trying out a new expanded keyboard design, Beethoven extended the range to include the C that sits over the fifth ledger line above the treble staff. Even though going so high meant that his concerto could be played only on new, state-of-the-art pianos, Beethoven wanted the work to reflect these technological advancements. 

Beethoven was known for being difficult. His savage performance style—louder, harder, faster! —meant that he occasionally damaged the fragile keyboard instruments of the age, like an Enlightenment-era Jerry Lee Lewis. As a young man (and a middle-aged one, too) his rough yet haughty personal code compelled him to quarrel with others over slights real and imagined. He often scandalized his devout teacher Joseph Haydn, who believed him to be an atheist and referred to him mockingly as “the Great Mogul.” 

But Beethoven’s skills as a pianist far eclipsed Haydn’s, and pretty much everyone else’s after Mozart’s untimely death. In a letter written around the time that Beethoven was sketching out ideas for his Piano Concerto No. 3, Frau von Bernhard, an habituée of the same Friday morning musical salon, described the wigless young virtuoso’s behavior as “unmannerly in both gesture and demeanor,” with Beethoven even refusing, on one particularly galling occasion, to play for the hostess’s mother, who got down on her knees and begged. Mozart had admired the gracious and cultured Countess Thun, yet this “small and plain-looking” man with an “ugly, red, pock-marked face” dared to snub her!  

Although he seldom bothered to transcribe the dazzling improvisations that came to him so easily, Beethoven did something unusual with his Third Concerto. In 1809 he composed—as in committed to staff paper—a cadenza for the first movement that functions much like an extended development section. As his deafness worsened, he felt increasingly incapable of public performance. If his music was to be heard at all, he needed other people to play it.

Over the years, other pianist-composers have created their own cadenzas, a traditional form of musical tribute that Beethoven practiced, too, when he was still a hot-shot virtuoso. Clara Schumann, who was 49 years old when she performed Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto for the first time, described the experience in a diary entry from November 3, 1868: “I played Beethoven’s C Minor Concerto for the first time (almost unbelievable) with real delight.  I composed a cadenza for it, and I believe it is not bad.”

A Closer Listen

Piano Concerto No. 3 marks the end of Beethoven’s early period and the beginning of his middle period, when he dismantled and reassembled everything he knew about form, tonality, and genre.

A dotted drum-beat motif pulsates through the opening Allegro. The second theme, carried by violins and clarinets, is lyrical and lithe, a frisky contrast to the somber martial passage that it follows. The piano rushes in: a flurry of mad ascensions. After a magnificent cadenza, Beethoven gives the timpani the drum-beat motif he’s been teasing us with since the opening measures. 

The central Largo is in sharp-studded E major, a key so far removed from C minor that it barely inhabits the same hemisphere. According to biographer Jan Swafford, Beethoven played the entire opening with the sustain pedal down. 

The rondo finale begins in the home key of C minor, but a lighter touch prevails. In the mighty coda, the tempo speeds to Presto, and the rondo resolves in euphoric C major.  

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897): Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

Brahms’s fourth and final symphony draws on a lifetime of experience and immersive study, resulting in a work that’s both intensely experimental and deeply traditional. Although the E Minor Symphony is now widely considered to be the capstone of his career as a symphonist, it was not warmly welcomed. After the composer and pianist Ignaz Brüll performed a two-piano reduction of the score for a small gathering of Brahms’s closest friends, an awkward silence fell. The conductor Hans Richter and the music critics Eduard Hanslick and Max Kalbeck, all loyal supporters, were unable to say a single nice thing about it. Hanslick later wrote, “I felt as though I were being thrashed by two extremely clever fellows.” Kalbeck told him that the finale, now regarded as the very heart of the work, was unsuitable for a symphony and should be replaced. 

Although the Fourth’s premiere, conducted by the composer himself on October 25, 1885, in Meiningen, was a great success, it flopped badly in later performances in Vienna. The Austrian composer and critic Hugo Wolf dismissed it as “the art of composing without ideas.” Even the conductor Hans von Bülow, who famously anointed Brahms the successor to Bach and Beethoven, described it as “difficult, very.” For more than a decade, audiences were unmoved, if not openly hostile. 

It was not until his final appearance in public, less than a month before he died, that Brahms witnessed a positive response to his final symphony. His former student and biographer Florence May described the performance in Vienna of March 7, 1897, in poignant detail: “A storm of applause broke out at the end of the first movement, not to be quieted until the composer, coming to the front of the artists’ box in which he was seated, showed himself to the audience…. The applauding, shouting house, its gaze riveted on the figure standing in the balcony, so familiar and yet in present aspect so strange, seemed unable to let him go. Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there in shrunken form, with lined countenance, strained expression, white hair hanging lank; and through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for each knew that they were saying farewell.”

A Closer Listen

Today, in the wake of modernism, postmodernism, and all its atonal offshoots, we struggle to understand why Brahms’s contemporaries found the Fourth Symphony so perplexing. Although it is certainly cunningly made, its cerebral underpinnings never distract from its beauty. The repeating cycles of descending thirds, which appear throughout the symphony in myriad motivic patterns, unite contrasting moods. Darkness permeates light, minor shifts to major, and vice versa. 

The springing Allegro theme of the first movement gives rise to an overt quotation from one of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs: “Oh death, how bitter you are.” The gorgeous Andante moderato begins with a theme in the medieval-church Phrygian mode—which Brahms understood as the expression of deep need, a longing for heavenly comfort—and then gives way to the scherzo-like Allegro giocoso, a triangle-happy romp in C major. 

Yet it is the finale, based on the almost archaic passacaglia form (a set of variations over a repeated bass line), that renders the work truly sublime. A masterful compendium of everything Brahms had learned as a symphonist, it’s loosely based on Bach’s death-drunk Cantata No. 150, “For Thee, O Lord, I Long,” and transforms the passacaglia, an ancient procedure, into a recognizable but astonishing take on 19th-century sonata form. 
Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller

Saraste Conducts the Dallas Symphony in Sibelius and Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich and his baby daughter Galina (and what looks like a Dachshund possibly).

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, performs Sibelius’s Pohjolan tytär and Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony at the Meyerson tonight (April 27) and this weekend. For more details on the concert, where you can also find these program notes in a slightly different format, go to the DSO website.

I was pleased with the way the Shostakovich notes turned out, partly because I had originally turned in an equally long batch of notes about Shostakovich’s Fourth, and then the repertoire was changed to the Eighth instead. But no research is ever truly wasted, and I feel like my work on the Fourth informed and improved my notes on the Eighth.

In the meantime, here’s another photo of Shosty in 1937, sporting the trendy coastal granny look. I’m including this one instead of a photo of Jean Sibelius, which is unfair, but Jean will get his propers the next time, promise.

Saraste Conducts Sibelius and Shostakovich

by René Spencer Saller

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957): Pohjolan tytär (Pohjola’s Daughter), Op. 49

Before Sibelius became Finland’s first great composer, he yearned, against considerable odds, to perform professionally. Although he played violin as a child, he didn’t start formal lessons until he was 14. “The violin took me by storm,” he wrote, “and for the next 10 years it was my dearest wish, my greatest ambition, to become a great virtuoso.” At 25, after years of dogged study in Helsinki, Berlin, and Vienna, he auditioned for a place in the Vienna Philharmonic and was rejected.

Sibelius turned to composition instead and became a leading voice in the growing movement for Finnish independence. Like many Finns of his social class, the educated élite, he was ethnically Swedish and culturally Northern European: he grew up speaking Swedish, and studied music in Berlin and Vienna. Whereas most works of Romantic Nationalism incorporate native dances and songs, most of Sibelius’s melodies are invented. He had surely heard traditional Finnish folk tunes, but he seldom quoted them. Instead, he was inspired by nature and the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala,to create his own deeply personal form of folk music. 

His music also reflected a particular historical moment, one marked by popular unrest. After a century of Russian rule, the Finns began to protest against their compulsory conscription into the Russian military and their censorship by the occupying regime. The “February Manifesto” of Tsar Nicholas II, in 1899, gave the Russian government complete control over Finland, stripping all but symbolic power from the Finnish Senate. In November a group of Helsinki artists and activists organized several events in support of censored journalists. The earliest iteration of Sibelius’s iconic FinlandiaFinland Awakes, was the rousing finale for a series of patriotic historical tableaux that he wrote for one such event. More than 18 years would elapse before Finland would officially declare its independence from Russia.  

A Finnish Fantasia

By 1905, when he began Pohjolan tytär (Pohjola’s Daughter), Sibelius was often drunk. Although his alcoholism caused untold problems in his domestic and professional lives, he was astonishingly productive, composing music for hours on end. “He has such a multitude of themes in his head that he has been literally quite dizzy,” his wife, Aino, recounted in a letter from that period. “He stays awake all night, plays incredibly beautifully, cannot tear himself away from the delightful melodies—he has so many ideas that it is hard to believe it.” 

He called Pohjolan tytär a “symphonic fantasia,” a term he never used again. As with many of his other programmatic works, its source was the Kalevala. He composed the bulk of the “fantasia” between 1905 and 1906, not long after hearing Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben in Berlin. Inspired by his German colleague’s opulent orchestration, Sibelius set out to create his own, distinctively Finnish take on the heroic tone poem. He found the project exhilarating. As he explained in a letter to Aino, “This is my genre!! Here I can move without feeling the weight of tradition.”

A Closer Listen

Sibelius might have emancipated himself from the weight of tradition, but he composed his free-form music with an ancient story in mind. He gave a German program to his publisher, translating the relevant lines from the Kalevalawhile preserving, to the best of his abilities, the striking, sing-song meter of the Finnish original. 

The story involves the old sorcerer Väinämöinen, who falls for the imperious daughter of Pohjola. First seen perched on a rainbow, spinning a cloth of silver and gold, the icy maiden issues a series of impossible challenges, and when her poor suitor fails at the last one—carving a sea-worthy, self-propelled boat from the shards of her spindle—she laughs scornfully (listen for those stabbing, Psycho-esque strings!). Bloodied but wiser for his mistakes, the old sorcerer leaves her to travel on alone. 

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975):  Symphony No 8 in C Minor, Op. 65

By the mid-1930s, Socialist Realism was the only state-sanctioned musical style in Soviet Russia. Composers who had safely dabbled in avant-garde or neo-classical idioms a few years earlier learned to fear the wrath of Joseph Stalin and his cultural watchdogs. State-approved compositions typically incorporated folk songs and ended in a major key. Composers were expected to support the class struggle by honoring the proletariat and conveying strong Soviet values, as opposed to the apolitical, bourgeois individualism of the United States and Western Europe. Artists, writers, composers, and patrons who failed to conform to the new mandate were executed, imprisoned in gulags, or simply made to vanish.

One nerve-wracking aspect of the evolving Soviet rulebook was the inconsistent, even incoherent enforcement. A composer might never know whether he was being punished for the content of his work or for pettier, personality-driven reasons. Becoming too popular, for instance, was a surefire way to bring on a beat-down—symbolic if you were lucky, literal if you were not.  

After getting slapped with a damning review of his successful opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District in 1936 (anonymous but likely penned by Stalin himself) and an equally harsh critique of another, far less edgy composition the same year, Shostakovich was understandably terrified. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony before its premiere but after rehearsals had begun. His wife, the physicist Nina Varzar, gave birth to their firstborn daughter, Galina Dmitrievna, on May 30, 1936, which meant he had a fresh new life to worry about. Over the next several months, he kept his head down, busying himself with uncontroversial projects. He would not share the Fourth with the public until December 30, 1961.

Shostakovich was able to restore his good standing, at least for the time being, thanks to the sensational success of his Fifth Symphony in 1937. He even agreed to describe the D Minor Symphony as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” By this point, he knew exactly how to tiptoe around the government censors, although he sometimes felt compelled, whether out of bravery or sheer cussedness, to poke at them instead. This would not be the last time that he would offend the authorities, nor the last time that he would accept unjust criticism.

Six years later, despite being sick with a gastrointestinal infection, Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 8 in C Minor in a remarkably short time—officially, only two months, from July 1 to September 4, 1943, although he had probably worked out most of the music in his head before committing the notes to staff paper, as was his habit. Thanks to the monumental success of his Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”), he enjoyed the luxury of composing without distraction on a state-sponsored sabbatical at the “Creative Home,” an isolated retreat maintained by the Union of Soviet Composers that was located about 150 miles northeast of Moscow—insulated from the noise and chaos of wartime. The work’s dedicatee, his fellow countryman and frequent colleague Evgeny Mravinsky, led the USSR Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere on November 4 that same year. 

Although audiences seemed generally receptive to the Eighth, the authorities were not. They called it depressing, confusing, and counter-revolutionary. By the end of World War II, Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony had been effectively erased from the repertoire. Its follow-up, the studiously apolitical, neoclassical Ninth, was banned for the remainder of Stalin’s life and not recorded until 1956.

Erasure and Vindication

In 1948, five years after its premiere, the Eighth Symphony still managed to make trouble for Shostakovich. Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet Minister of Culture and Shostakovich’s most powerful nemesis, yanked it from obscurity just so he could denounce it at length. Another member of the panel, Vladimir Zakharov, a Soviet functionary and a minor composer, described it as “not a musical work at all” and “repulsive and ultra-individualistic,” similar in sound to “a piercing dentist’s drill, a musical gas chamber, the sort the Gestapo used.” Shostakovich was also condemned for the “pessimism, unhealthy individualism, extreme subjectivism, and willful complexity” of his symphony. (Even Sergei Prokofiev, whose own works were routinely savaged by Stalin’s toadies, had trashed Shostakovich’s Eighth at a Composers’ Plenum four years earlier.) Zhdanov ordered that all copies of the score be recycled and all recordings destroyed. 

According to his friends and his contested (and possibly semi-fabricated) memoir Testimony, Shostakovich considered the symphony a kind of Requiem for himself. As late as 1956, he complained that “the Eighth Symphony has remained unperformed for many years. In this work there was an attempt to express the emotional experiences of the People, to reflect the terrible tragedy of war. Composed in the summer of 1943, the Eighth Symphony is an echo of that difficult time, and in my opinion quite in the order of things.” 

Two years later, the Central Committee conceded that the Eighth Symphony had, along with certain works by Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and several other composers, been “indiscriminately denounced.” It returned to the active repertoire, where it remains. 

The Composer Speaks

“I wrote it very quickly…. When the Seventh Symphony was finished, I intended to compose an opera and a ballet and started work on an oratorio about the defenders of Moscow. Then I put aside the oratorio and began work on the Eighth Symphony. It reflects my… elevated creative mood, influenced by the joyful news of the Red Army’s victories….

“The Eighth Symphony contains tragic and dramatic inner conflicts. But on the whole it is optimistic and life-asserting. The first movement is a long adagio, with a dramatically tense climax. The second movement is a march, with scherzo elements, and the third is a dynamic march. The fourth movement, in spite of its march form, is sad in mood. The fifth and final movement is bright and gay, like a pastoral, with dance elements and folk motifs. 

“The philosophical conception of my new work can be summed up in these words: life is beautiful. All that is dark and ignominious rots away, and beauty triumphs.”—Dmitri Shostakovich, September 1943

A Closer Listen

Cast in five movements, the Eighth Symphony lasts a little more than an hour. It moves from the home key of C minor to C major, following the traditional Beethovenian darkness-to-light model, but the tragic tone suffuses even the “bright and gay” finale—lingering C-minor shadows that show up like a weeping widow at a christening. The closing bars are ambiguous at best; instead of the radiant major-key apotheosis that we expect, we get the faint glimpse of a C major triad, a flickering hint of a dream deferred. 

The opening movement is the longest of the five, about as long as the next three movements combined. It starts with a brooding, Mahlerian Adagio, initially crooned by cellos and double basses, and gradually builds to a fretful Allegro non troppo. Shostakovich quotes or adapts melodic material from his own Fifth and Seventh symphonies, assembling new themes from which he constructs a ferocious fugue. Piercing winds and astringent harmonies join limpid strings and gossamer textures, producing flashes of bombast and beauty. At one point close to the end, a solo English horn delivers a dark and ruminative rhapsody, which the strings take up briefly, then abandon. A sudden blast of brass before an anxious silence descends.

The next two movements, an Allegretto and an Allegro non troppo, respectively, are functional scherzos. Here Shostakovich teaches a masterclass on the march form. The first march, in D-flat major, is surreal and grotesque, a queasy spectacle. A motoric fury propels the second, a magnificent Machine Age contraption of chords that grind as relentlessly as pistons, punctuated by shrieking clarinet, clattering percussion, and guttural low strings.

The Largo, in G-sharp minor, packs a lethal punch despite its brevity. Like the two preceding movements, it’s a march—but this time a funeral march. As with the ancient dance form on which it is modeled, the passacaglia, the Largo presents a series of variations that unfold over a recurring harmonic progression, or bass line. Shostakovich’s slow movement uses this hypnotic underpinning to showcase the subtleties of the shifting melody, the different voices and moods produced by the various instrumental timbres, both individually and in combination, such as the rather startling effect of a flutter-tongued flute. 

Toward the end, the key wends its way to C major. Yakov Milkis, a violinist in the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, recalled telling Shostakovich how much he admired the transition to the finale. “My dear friend,” the composer responded, “if you only knew how much blood that C major cost me.”

The finale, another Allegretto, opens with a solo bassoon in the first of several pastoral, chamber-like interludes. According to some sources, Shostakovich originally titled the last movement “Through cosmic space the earth flies toward its doom,” which contradicts his official remarks about the triumph of beauty, although it accurately describes the atmosphere of apocalyptic dread. The key is C major, the “happy ending” for C minor, but it sure doesn’t feel like C major. The mood is weirdly bleak, unsettled—nothing like the euphoric release we experience during the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, for instance. The Eighth Symphony ends quietly and enigmatically, with a throaty utterance from the flute, at the deepest point of its register, over pizzicato and sustaining strings. Sometimes the only possible form of heroism is survival. 
Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller

The Dallas Symphony performs a Katherine Balch world premiere, plus works by Borodin and Stravinsky

Katherine Balch, composer, by Lanz Photography

It was my great privilege to write the program notes for the world premiere of Katherine Balch’s whisper concerto for Cello and Orchestra. If you’re in Dallas or going to be in Dallas this coming weekend, you should by all means attempt to secure tickets to this event and go. Associate DSO Conductor (and former SLSO Associate Conductor) Gemma New leads the Dallas Symphony in what promises to be an exciting (and perhaps even riotous) springtime ritual.

You can read my notes on the excellent Dallas Symphony Orchestra website, but I included some bonus material that got snipped for space, and I have learned my lesson with links (which don’t seem to be as permanent as I had naively imagined when I started this website). This also gives me the chance to include some cherished photos. I also decided to reframe the concert title and shift the emphasis from The Rite of Spring (no offense to Stravinsky, who I’m confident cares not a whit whether he gets top billing) to the world premiere of the whisper concerto. I understand that the orchestra, like all 21st-century ensembles, has to consider what sells tickets, but as a blogger who is entirely self-financed, I do not.

Speaking of which, and before I forget, here are Balch and soloist Zlatomir Fung in conversation about whisper concerto.

I also want to recommend Balch’s website, which is among the best I have ever seen. You can actually peruse the score for the whisper concerto and marvel over the precise performance instructions and notes on instrumentation. I know people throw around the word “genius” way too often, but if Balch isn’t a genius, I’m not sure if the designation even matters.

New Conducts Borodin, Balch, and Stravinsky

by Rene Spencer Saller

Alexander Porfiriyevich Borodin (1833–1887): Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor

Like Tchaikovsky, who was seven years younger, Borodin was born in Saint Petersburg and died unexpectedly at age 53. The two composers knew each other somewhat but traveled in different circles. Borodin, a prominent professor of chemistry, moonlighted as a member of the Moguchaya Kuchka, or “Mighty Handful”: five influential composers who dominated Saint Petersburg’s musical culture from the mid-1860s until the early 1880s. Besides Borodin, “the Five,” as they were often called, consisted of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, César Cui, and Mily Balakirev. Only Balakirev had the luxury of composing full-time; the others had day jobs. Borodin, the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, published major treatises on acids and aldehydes. 

“I do not seek recognition as a composer for I am somehow ashamed of admitting to my compositional activities,” the research chemist wrote in a letter. “For me this is a relaxation, a pastime, an indulgence that distracts me from my principal work.”

After Borodin’s death from a sudden brain aneurysm, a monument was erected in Saint Petersburg. The statue honored his scientific achievements—his music was admired by connoisseurs but still mostly unknown to the general public. His most ambitious work, Prince Igor, remained unfinished at his death. Even though Borodin didn’t live to complete the opera, he was alive in 1879, when Rimsky-Korsakov conducted a performance of its climactic Act II closing number, Polovtsian Dances.

Borodin’s friends Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov relied on their memories and the late composer’s towering piles of papers to complete Prince Igor, a monumental effort at which Borodin had been plugging away, on and off, for the past 18 years. The world premiere of the full opera took place on November 4, 1890, at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg.

A Closer Listen

Especially for an amateur composer, Borodin had remarkably strong melodic instincts, a knack for vivid orchestration, and a disciplined work ethic. Like all his best work, the score for Prince Igor enlivens a staunch nationalism with exotic, even mildly subversive touches. Based on a scenario by Vladimir Stasov, Borodin’s self-penned libretto involves a medieval Russian prince who is defeated by a tribe of Tatar invaders, the Polovtsians, and held captive—although treated as an honored guest—until he makes a daring escape.

Prince Igor, Borodin dryly observed, is “essentially a national opera, interesting only to us Russians, who love to steep our patriotism in the sources of our history, and to see the origins of our nationality again on the stage.” A dedicated researcher, he studied the culture of the region, particularly its songs and dances, derived from a diverse mixture of influences and folk traditions. His musical portrait of the Polovtsians, epitomized by The Polovtsian Dances, incorporates not only authentic Caucasian tunes but also Moorish melodies by way of North Africa and the Middle East. 

In its original context, as a ballet sequence, The Polovtsian Dances closes Act II of Prince Igor. For this hook-happy show-stopper, Khan Konchak presents a menu of sensuous splendors available to the prince once he consents to stop fighting the Polovtsians. As a parade of sultry concubines and catamites sashay and shimmy for the barbarian chief, along with his court and captives, Borodin tempts the ear with a seductive array of dances: ambiguously ethnic (or “Orientalist,” as postcolonial critics might argue); rich in orchestral color and harmonic interest; rhythmically complex but still conducive to graceful human movement. 

In addition to serving as an exhilarating concert opener, as it does here, The Polovtsian Dances inspired some of the music in the 1953 musical Kismet, which turned the tantalizing woodwind-sung main theme into “Stranger in Paradise,” a monster Broadway hit that enjoyed even greater success when the musical was repackaged as a star-studded MGM movie. Crooned by pop idols, hummed in countless showers, whistled on the way to work, Borodin’s music is much more famous than the man who created it. Anonymous ubiquity: the hallmark of a true classic.

Katherine Balch (b. 1991): whisper concerto: for Solo Cello and Orchestra 

The winner of the 2020–21 Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome, Balch was nominated for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2020 Career Advancement Award by violinist Hilary Hahn. Balch, who earned advanced degrees in music from Yale and Columbia, is currently a visiting assistant professor of composition at the Yale School of Music. Her work has been commissioned and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the London Sinfonietta, and Ensemble Intercontemporain, among many other prominent orchestras and ensembles. 

Dubbed “some kind of musical Thomas Edison” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Balch constructs distinctive sound worlds unique to each new composition. The prolific young composer engineers an eclectic but efficient sonic code, precisely calibrated to the needs of a particular project, incorporating everything from toy instruments to tuned crystal water goblets, earthenware pots, and pianos prepared according to painstakingly detailed instructions involving color-coded graphs and elaborate symbols. 

In the score for Balch’s new Dallas Symphony Orchestra co-commission whisper concerto, every element of the sound is mapped to the minutest detail, right down to images of all the specific objects that she used to modify the strings of the prepared piano. She provides specific instructions for most of the other instruments, too, whether it’s col legno battuto bowing for the strings, which requires the musician to strike the strings with the wooden part of the bow normally held by the fingers, or a passage where the cello’s bow is swapped out for a bamboo chopstick. Elsewhere she calls for nontraditional variations on traditional techniques such as pizzicato or flutter tonguing. In some glorious version of an afterlife, John Cage and Henry Cowell are surely smiling.

Composed in 2022, whisper concerto is true to Balch’s style in that it sounds at once perfectly idiomatic and utterly strange. Beautiful—sometimes even conventionally tonal—melodies commune lovingly with shameless noise. Virtuosity gives way to entropy only to catch its breath and come back weirder and wilder, transformed by the volatile power of orchestral collaboration. Shards and fragments of free jazz mysteriously reassemble themselves, against all odds, into a peculiar chorale.

“The end of my concerto deals with elements of Ligeti’s noise-based cadenza, but in a different, more tonal context,” Balch explained in a recent interview with Rita Fernandes of The Strad magazine. 

One challenge that she confronted while composing her cello concerto was maintaining some kind of fruitful equilibrium between the solo instrument and the orchestra. ‘The cello’s low register can be difficult to balance, and I really wanted to honor the integrity of the instrument’s tessitura,” she told Fernandes. “It’s never a battle between cello and orchestra. I want them to fit together in a way that provokes intimacy between them.”

The Composer Speaks

“whisper concerto is named after the bristling, agitato ‘whisper cadenza’ of György Ligeti’s cello concerto. Like Artifacts, my concerto for violin and orchestra, this piece is not meant as a showcase for cello alone, but for the orchestra as a whole, which reacts to and augments the soloist. 

“whisper concerto is a working out of several musical contradictions I find expressively intriguing: how can an andante be agitato? presto, dolcissimo? How can a cadenza play (and be playful) with the evolving demands and expectations of performer virtuosity? How can a simple chorale become the shadow of a desperate, fluttering, noisy scorrevole? In folding together these musical opposites, I hope to have captured some of the kinetic virtuosity of Zlatomir’s playing, for whom this concerto is dedicated, along with his kindness, playfulness, gentleness of spirit, and warmth.” —Katherine Balch


Some Terms Defined

Andante: Moderately slow tempo, as in a walking pace
Agitato: In an agitated manner

Cadenza: An improvised or composed ornamental passage designed for virtuosic display and typically performed in a rhythmically loose style
Chorale: Hymn or psalm form harmonized according to a set of conventional procedures
Dolcissimo: Very sweet or soft
Presto: Quick

Scorrevole: Gliding or flowing from note to note 

Tessitura: Italian for “texture,” the term refers to the range of notes or general pitch level at which the voice (of the singer or instrument) most comfortably resides, without strain or undue challenge.


Igor Stravinsky in his later years, with cat. He rarely smiled in photos, probably because he didn’t normally get to cradle a cat in his arms.

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971): Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Without the efforts of some crucial creative partners, Stravinsky’s iconic ballet Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) would not exist in its current form—or perhaps at all. 

Among the Russian composer’s most essential collaborators were three of his fellow countrymen: the painter and archaeologist Nicholas Roerich, who helped develop the two-part scenario and to whom the score is dedicated; the choreographer and impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned it for Les Ballets Russes; and Vaslav Nijinsky, the insurgent young choreographer whose savage kinetic language may have actually provoked the riot for which Stravinsky’s music is credited. 

Stravinsky was in his late 20s and still relatively unknown when he began working with Diaghilev. The proud young composer almost passed on the opportunity after Diaghilev was late to their first meeting. Just as Stravinsky was about to slip out the street exit, Diaghilev hurried to stop him. “I’ve often wondered if I’d opened that door,” Stravinsky told his biographer, “whether I would have written The Rite of Spring.

A Pagan Sacrifice

Sometime in 1910, while polishing the score of his first Diaghilev commission, The Firebird, Stravinsky was distracted by “a fleeting vision, which came to me as a complete surprise.” According to his own account, he imagined “a solemn pagan rite [wherein] sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” 

Instead of pursuing this idea immediately, he finished The Firebird and began his next ballet, the folk-inflected, pathos-drenched Petrushka. It wasn’t until July 1911 that he resumed work on what eventually became The Rite of Spring (with the subtitle “Pictures from Pagan Russia”). He and Roerich hashed out the story and discussed potential dance movements. That September, back at his family’s estate in Ustilug, Stravinsky was eager to plunge into the score. “I’ve already started composing,” he wrote. “I’ve sketched the prelude, and I’ve gone on and also sketched the ‘Divination with Twigs’; I’m terribly excited! The music is coming out fresh.”

He continued to work on it the following winter, in Switzerland, finishing the first act in late February. In a letter to a friend he exclaimed, “it’s as if 20 years, not two, have passed since the composition of Firebird!” That March he traveled to Monte Carlo and played the first part of the score for Diaghilev and Nijinsky as a piano reduction. They’re “wild about it,” he boasted to his mother. 

Pierre Monteux, who would later conduct the infamous premiere, wasn’t so favorably impressed. “I was convinced he was raving mad,” the Frenchman confessed. “The very walls resounded as Stravinsky pounded away, occasionally stamping his feet and jumping up and down…. My only comment at the end was that such music would surely cause a scandal.” 

Riot Act

After completing the orchestration in spring 1913, Stravinsky traveled to Paris to oversee the rehearsals. The dancers and musicians found the piece so daunting that an unprecedented number of practice sessions were scheduled. The exotic tonalities and erratic rhythms notwithstanding, the dress rehearsal went well. 

The actual premiere was a different story. The opening bassoon solo—written entirely above middle C—upset a very vocal contingent of the audience. Almost immediately, the patrons were shouting, blowing whistles, and shoving one another. Because the dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra over the fracas, they fell out of sync. Diaghilev screamed from the wings and Stravinsky panicked, but Monteux soldiered on. He was, in Stravinsky’s approving assessment, as “impervious and nerveless as a crocodile.” “It is still almost incredible to me,” the composer later remarked, “that he actually brought the orchestra through to the end.”

Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller

Bruckner’s Fourth, plus a MacMillan U.S. premiere

Anton Bruckner, one of those guys who was born very old in certain ways while remaining eternally youthful in others. A man of many facets, you might say!

I realized that I never posted the notes I wrote for a concert that happened last November, in 2022. This was one of those cases when I wrote the notes so far in advance of the concert that I sort of forgot about it until after the fact. At any rate, it was a splendid performance by all accounts, and here are the notes I wrote for the concerts at the Meyerson.

But before I do that, I wanted to post a link to a fantastic performance of the Bruckner so that you could listen to it first. In my experience, Bruckner is underappreciated, at least in this country, and despite the occasional longueurs, his music offers many Wagnerian thrills, minus all of that Gesamtkunstwerk showbiz and twincest. (Don’t get me wrong: Like Brahms, I am the best of the Wagnerians, and also a lover of camp, as in early John Waters, but I have deduced that many other listeners prefer the werk minus the Gesamtkunst, if that even makes sense in German, in which case they might find that they actually prefer Bruckner to the composer he worshiped so obsequiously.)

Here’s Gunter Wänd leading the NDR Elbphilharmonie, since the Luisi performance for which I wrote these program notes is, alas, not currently YouTubeable:

Luisi Conducts MacMillan and Bruckner

by René Spencer Saller

James MacMillan (b. 1959): Violin Concerto No. 2

The Scottish composer and conductor Sir James Loy MacMillan first attracted international attention in 1990, after the rapturous response at the BBC Proms to his large symphonic work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. Subsequent successes range from his extraordinary (and unusually popular) percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel to his Fourth Symphony, which was first performed on August 3, 2015, by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conducted by his fellow countryman Donald Runnicles. MacMillan’s recording with Britten Sinfonia of his Oboe Concerto, for the Harmonia Mundi label, won the 2016 BBC Music Magazine Award. In 2019 The Guardian deemed his Stabat Mater the 23rd greatest work of art music since 2000. MacMillan completed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 2021, and the world premiere—performed by the work’s dedicatee, the Scottish virtuoso Nicola Benedetti—took place on September 28, 2022, at Perth Concert Hall, Perth, Australia. This is its U.S. premiere. 

The Composer Speaks

“My Second Violin Concerto is written in one through-composed movement and is scored for a medium-sized orchestra. It opens with three chords, and the notes which the soloist plays in these (pizzicato) outline a simple theme which is the core ingredient for much of the music. This three-note theme incorporates a couple of wide intervals which provide much of the expressive shape to a lot of the subsequent melodic development throughout the concerto.

“When the soloist eventually plays with the bow, the character of the material sets the mood for much of the free-flowing, yearning quality of the music throughout. The prevailing slow pulse is punctuated by some faster transitional ideas, and after a metric modulation the second main idea is established on brass and timpani, marked alla marcia. The wide-intervallic leaps in the solo violin part continue to dominate in a passage marked soaring, even as the music becomes more rhythmic and dancelike.

“An obsessive repetitiveness enters the soloist’s material just before the first main climax of the work, where the wind blare out the wide-intervalled theme. The central section of the work is reflective, restrained and melancholic, where the soloist’s part is marked dolcedesolato and eventually misterioso, hovering over an unsettled, low shimmering in the cellos and basses.

“The martial music returns and paves the way for an energetic section based on a series of duets which the violin soloist has with a procession of different instruments in the orchestra—double bass, cello, bassoon, horn, viola, clarinet, trumpet, oboe, flute, and violin. After this we hear the three notes/chords again developed in the wind over a pulsating timpani beat, which sets up the final climax marked braying, intense and feroce.

“The final recapitulation of the original material provides a soft cushion and backdrop to the soloist’s closing melodic material, marked cantabile, before the work ends quietly and serenely.

“My Second Violin Concerto is dedicated to Nicola Benedetti and in memoriam Krzysztof Penderecki, the great Polish composer who died in 2020.” —Sir James MacMillan, 2022

Anton Bruckner (1824–1896): Symphony No 4

Trained by his schoolmaster father and the Augustinian monks of St. Florian, the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner worked as a cathedral organist for 13 years, earning a strong regional reputation for his virtuosic playing and brilliant improvisations. A late bloomer, he didn’t enter his maturity as a composer until midlife. Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was his first major composition to earn acclaim almost from its debut. 

The Hissing and Laughing Multitude

The enthusiastic response to his revised Fourth came as a huge relief to its 57-year-old creator at the 1881 premiere. Four years earlier, his Third Symphony, which was inscribed with an unctuous dedication to Richard Wagner, went nightmarishly awry at its Vienna premiere. Bruckner, an anxious and inexperienced conductor, was leading—or attempting to lead—openly hostile musicians who seemed determined to humiliate him. Before he even lifted his baton, he was losing audience members; each successive movement sent more patrons scuttling out of the concert hall. 

As his publisher Theodor Rättig later recalled, “the applause of a handful of some 10 or 20 generally very young people was countered by the hissing and laughing multitude…. When the audience had fled the hall and the players had left the platform, the little group of pupils and admirers stood around the grieving composer, attempting to console him, but all he could say was, ‘Oh, leave me alone; people want nothing to do with me.'”

Bruckner revised the “Wagner” Symphony at least six times, an exacting and time-consuming process to which he subjected all nine of his symphonies save the last, whose finale he left unfinished when he died, a little over a month after he turned 72. 

As Bruckner’s first real success (and his last popular triumph until the groundbreaking Seventh Symphony), the Fourth brought much-needed validation—perhaps even vindication. He would work it over numerous times, sketching out a fanciful “Romantic” program only to disavow most of the extramusical content just a few years later. Despite many attempts (some of them likely unsanctioned “corrections” by ambitious disciples and associates), Bruckner never improved on the 1878–1880 version of the Fourth Symphony, which is performed for this concert.

Paradox and Perfection

For most of his life, Bruckner was badly underestimated. His worldly Viennese contemporaries ridiculed him as a pious dolt, a rural church organist with no redeeming cleverness. But despite his unfashionable accent and gauche manners, Bruckner was no country bumpkin. His music, which reflects his dual roles as church organist and composer of symphonies, revels in paradox: it’s massive and nuanced, dense and subtle, ancient and modern. Intricate polyphony is draped in sumptuous Wagnerian orchestration. An expansive tone poem morphs into an elaborate fugue. Before our very ears, musical forms adapt and evolve in a state of transcendent flux. 

There’s nothing simple about Bruckner’s Fourth, including its date of completion. For Bruckner, a self-doubting perfectionist, no composition was ever truly finished. All told, there are approximately three dozen different versions of Bruckner’s nine symphonies. Maybe these multiple versions exist not because the composer was indecisive but rather because he saw his music as mutable, subject to change over time. Musicologists argue about the authenticity of various editions of Bruckner’s nine symphonies and speak of “the Bruckner Problem” —shorthand for the vexed debates about authorial intention and the relative virtues and drawbacks of the various revisions. Some editions include “corrections” that Bruckner never saw, much less sanctioned; other editions reflect changes that he made because he was insecure and possibly too receptive to suggestions from others.

Bruckner composed the first version of his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major between January and November 1874, but that original iteration was never performed or published during his lifetime. He continued to tinker with his Fourth Symphony, along with most of the others, for another 14 years. Bruckner researchers have identified at least seven authentic versions and revisions of the Fourth Symphony. For this concert the 1878–1880 version (ed. Nowak), which is the version of the Fourth most commonly performed and recorded today, was selected. Bruckner scored the Fourth for one pair each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, with four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Starting with the 1878 revision, a single bass tuba is included in the instrumentation.

Romantic Revisions

The nickname Romantic was used by Bruckner, who also created, and eventually abandoned, a program for the symphony. Bruckner marked the autograph of the Scherzo and Finale of the 1878 version of the symphony with brief descriptions such as Jagdthema (hunting theme), Tanzweise während der Mahlzeit auf der Jagd (dance tune during the lunch break while hunting), and Volksfest (people’s festival).

Also for this revision, Bruckner replaced the original scherzo with a new movement that’s commonly known as the “Hunt” Scherzo (JagdScherzo). The new movement, Bruckner explained in a letter, “represents the hunt, whereas the Trio (Tanzweise während…) is a dance melody which is played to the hunters during their meal.” In 1880 Bruckner replaced the Volksfest finale with a new one based on an earlier melodic idea.

After one especially productive rehearsal of the Fourth, Bruckner gave the conductor, Hans Richter, a coin and urged him to buy himself a beer to celebrate. (Richter was charmed by the gesture and kept the money as a keepsake.) On February 20, 1881, Richter presided over the first performance, in Vienna. It was the first premiere of a Bruckner symphony not to be conducted by Bruckner himself, and it was also his first unqualified success. After years of enduring hisses and insults, the composer finally heard real applause and basked in the unfamiliar warmth. To his delight and astonishment, he was summoned for a bow after each movement. 

The Composer Speaks

In a letter to the conductor Hermann Levi dated December 8, 1884, Bruckner supplied a vivid, if abbreviated, program: “In the first movement, after a full night’s sleep, the day is announced by the horn, 2nd movement song, 3rd movement hunting trio, musical entertainment of the hunters in the wood.” 

Six years later, in another letter, he expanded on the program somewhat: “In the first movement of the ‘Romantic’ Fourth Symphony the intention is to depict the horn that proclaims the day from the town hall! Then life goes on; in the Gesangsperiode [the second motif] the theme is the song of the great tit [a bird] Zizipe. 2nd movement: song, prayer, serenade. 3rd: hunt, and in the Trio how a barrel-organ plays during the midday meal in the forest.”

Yet when asked years later to elaborate on the meaning of the finale, Bruckner confessed, “I’ve quite forgotten what image I had in mind.” 

Bruckner and Wagner

At the age of 41, when he attended the Munich premiere of Tristan und Isolde, Bruckner became a committed Wagnerian. In 1873 he made his first pilgrimage to Bayreuth, uninvited and barely tolerated, so that he could show his idol the score to his Third Symphony, dedicated “in deepest veneration to the honorable Herr Richard Wagner, the unattainable, world-famous, and exalted Master of Poetry and Music, by Anton Bruckner.” Upon meeting his hero, Bruckner allegedly fell to the ground, yelping, “Master, I worship you!” Despite or because of his strenuous enthusiasm, he made a dismal impression on his hosts. In her diary, Wagner’s wife, Cosima, speaks disparagingly of the visitor as “the poor Viennese organist.” 

In summer 1876, Bruckner made his second trip to Bayreuth, where he attended the first complete performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle. He was so profoundly affected by the experience that he immediately began major revisions of several earlier works, including his Fourth Symphony. 

A Closer Listen

Bruckner’s 1878–80 revision of the Fourth has the following tempo markings and key signatures: 

Bewegt, nicht zu schnell (With motion, not too fast), in the home key of E-flat major

Andante, quasi allegretto, in C minor

Scherzo. Bewegt (with motion)—Trio: Nicht zu schnell (Not too fast), in B-flat major

Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (With motion, but not too fast), in E-flat major

Copyright 2022 by René Spencer Saller