New Era Begins
Aaron Jay Kernis b. 1960
Aaron Jay Kernis
b. 1960
Aaron Jay Kernis
New Era Dance

In the now-defunct schism between the serialists and the listening public, Aaron Jay Kernis clearly sided with neither, carving out his own personal vision of what is beautiful, flowing seamlessly from moments of dissonance to moments of lyrical tonality. His style is eclectic, juxtaposing a variety of styles, including American popular and vernacular music. He was described by New York music critic Lawrence Cosentino as “ or near the top of a list of young American composers who have made it safe for music lovers to return to the concert hall and enjoy new music that neither panders to nor alienates audiences.” His compositions have earned him many prizes and commissions, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his String Quartet No.2. He currently serves as composer in residence for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.

Self-taught on the violin, piano and in composition, Kernis attended the San Francisco Conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music, and Yale University, working along the way with John Adams, Charles Wuorinen, Morton Subotnick, Bernard Rands and Jacob Druckman.

New Era Dance was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 150th anniversary. It is a virtuosic piece for orchestra, reflecting the sounds the composer heard on the streets in his neighborhood, the Washington Heights section of New York City.

New Era Dance is framed by a recurring passage resembling Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story. Example 1 It is a frenetic mélange of salsa and rap, mid-century jazz Example 2 and disco, steel band and pseudo-folk all mixed with street noise topped by police sirens. It is episodic on structure, passing from one riff to another, featuring different combinations of instruments. In general, there is a raw violence to this piece, made more intense by the driving rhythm and the dissonance, and for which the sirens are an auditory metaphor. Example 3 The title is taken from a World War I ragtime dance – although there are no signs of ragtime in the score itself. There are a couple of stunning surprises as well.
Edvard Grieg 1843-1907
Edvard Grieg
Edvard Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16

The most successful and best known of nineteenth-century Scandinavian composers, Edvard Grieg, was one of the great exponents of Romantic nationalism. He saw it as his role in life to bring Scandinavian musical and literary culture to the attention of the rest of Europe. As composer, pianist and conductor he became a sought-after fixture in Europe’s music centers. His wife Nina was an accomplished singer, and the two traveled extensively together, popularizing his songs and piano works. In the process, he also helped introduce to the rest of Europe the writings of Scandinavian poets and dramatists, particularly Henrik Ibsen, for whose play Peer Gynt he composed incidental music.

As a student Grieg had been a failure. He quit school at 15 never to return. Under the sponsorship of Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, he was granted a scholarship to the Conservatory in Leipzig but hated his teachers and never forgave them their conservatism and pedantry. Understandably, he was not happy with the constraints of the classical sonata form; of all his surviving output, only eight works fall into this category: a youthful symphony, the famous piano concerto, a string quartet, a piano sonata, three violin sonatas and a cello sonata. In all his other compositions he insisted on the freedom of form so dear to the Romantic tradition.

All his life, Grieg felt most comfortable with and excelled in smaller musical forms: songs, miniature piano pieces, orchestral dances and re-workings of folk melodies. His aptitude for orchestration was indifferent at best. It is, therefore, surprising that his piano concerto, his only completed large-scale orchestral work outside of the student symphony, would end up as one of the most popular Romantic concertos.

Composed in 1868 and revised extensively five times, the last revision coming shortly before the composer's death, the Concerto was modeled after the Piano Concerto of Robert Schumann, with considerable Lisztian influence. Franz Liszt was Grieg’s idol, and he consulted with the older composer on phrasing and piano technique, particularly in the large cadenza. While the Concerto's themes are not ethnic Norwegian – it was written before Grieg became interested in Norway’s folk music – it still has a "Northern" mood and does incorporate Norwegian dance rhythms. Early in its career the Concerto was not well received since its apparent introverted style was foreign to a public used to the fire and bravura of concerti à la Liszt. Ironically, it was the enthusiastic endorsement by Liszt himself that turned the tide and converted both audiences and pianists to the work. Later in his life – his hero worship notwithstanding – Grieg had second thoughts about some of Liszt’s suggestions, and in the last revised version removed some of the latter’s more bombastic additions. This final version is the one commonly heard today.

Emulating his models, Grieg opens the Concerto with a strong piano declamation, spanning almost the entire range of the keyboard and followed by a wave of arpeggios Example 1 before the first theme appears in the orchestra. Example 2 Only then is the theme taken up by the piano and elaborated. Example 3 During the transition into the second theme, Grieg reveals his debt to his mentor, Liszt, with passages of unusual dissonance and ambiguous tonality that resolve into lyric expansiveness . The cellos introduce a lyrical second theme Example 4 although in the earlier versions Grieg had scored it for the trumpets (probably on Liszt’s advice). The written-out cadenza is expansive and, of course, technically challenging. The second movement Adagio is a tender song-like theme on muted strings.Example 5 When the piano finally enters, it gently embellishes the theme.

It is in the last movement that Grieg’s folk impulses break out in a Norwegian dance, the halling. Example 6 But a gentle middle section introduced by the flute with string accompaniment serves as a contrast to the ebullient dance. Example 7 After a brief cadenza, the soloist launches into a coda recasting the dance theme into the rapid triple time of the popular Norwegian springdans. Example 8 The Concerto ends with the gentle flute theme now thundered out by orchestra and soloist. Example 9

Claude Debussy 1862-1918
Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Afternoon of a Faun)

The publication in 1876 of symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s subtly sensual poem, L’après-midi d’un faune, created a furor in the cultural circles of Paris with its hints of bisexuality and lesbianism. The figure of the youthful, erotic faun appealed to Debussy, who in 1892 planned a three-part composition, Prélude, interludes et paraphrase finale pour l’après-midi d’un faune, to serve as background music to readings of the poem. In the course of the composition, however, he was, sidetracked by his work on the opera Pelléas et Mélisande. As a result, only the Prélude was ever written.

The poem depicts a sensuous faun, a rural deity represented as a man with the ears, horns, tail and hind legs of a goat, silently contemplating cavorting nymphs and other forest creatures on a warm sunny afternoon. The suggestive music captures the erotic atmosphere of the poem with consummate skill and is one of the first and most evocative examples of musical Impressionism. The Prélude was first performed in Paris in December 1894 and was an instant triumph, the only work of Debussy ever to receive an encore at its premiere. Mallarmé himself praised the music, saying that it extended the emotion of his poem and provided it with a warmer background. Debussy regarded the music as “a very free illustration and in no way as a synthesis of the poem.”

The Prélude requires a full orchestra, but with a touch as light and evanescent as the poem; often the pauses in the music are as dramatic as the music itself, which relies mostly on the woodwinds and the harp to create the dreamy atmosphere and imagery. In 1912, however, Sergey Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, urged the dancer Vaclav Nijinsky to choreograph and dance the role of the faun in a ballet based on Mallarmé’s poem and Debussy’s music. Nijinsky’s interpretation of the role turned out to be much more literal than Mallarmé’s symbolist poetry. His openly erotic interpretation of the faun provoked a major scandal, primarily because of the final scene in which the faun, frustrated and saddened by the inability to seduce his nymph playmates, consoles himself by sensuously fondling a scarf that one of the nymphs has dropped in her escape.

The signature theme of the Prélude, which opens the piece as a flute solo, is so well known that it barely requires repeating. Example 1 It reappears in many variations, re-harmonized and re-orchestrated, with even little snippets – prticularly the first six notes – incorproated into other melodies. It seems to symbolize the faune, although there is nothing in the score or the ballet to prove the association. The end of the complete theme, where the horn enters, also undergoes various transformations. In this example, which begins a new section of the Prélude, only traces of the original harmony from the horn cadence are evident, but its source is clear; the succeeding chromatic passage is an embellished motive from the main theme. Example 2

The overall form of the Prélude is ABA. The middle section includes two brief subsidiary themes, the first introduced by the oboe, Example 3 the second by the upper woodwinds. Example 4 This latter melody dominates the section before Debussy brings back the "faune" theme, but the return of the A section is not strictly a repeat; rather, it comes a series of harmonic transformations and variations on the theme. Example 5
Ottorino Respighi 1879-1936
Ottorino Respighi
Ottorino Respighi
Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)

Ottorino Respighi was one of the most imaginative orchestrators of the first part of the twentieth century. While most of his musical studies were undertaken in Italy, he spent two crucial years in Russia where he took lessons in orchestration from Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Respighi developed a masterful technique in the use of instrumental colors and sonorities. Firmly rooted in the late-Romantic tradition, he maintained this style with only marginal influence from the revolutionary changes in music that occurred during his lifetime.

Respighi was a musical nationalist, keenly interested in reviving Italy’s musical heritage, especially its instrumental music. Beginning in 1906 he undertook to transcribe and arrange music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, editing the works of Claudio Monteverdi and Tomaso Antonio Vitali. In 1917 he published the first of his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, based on Italian and French lute music, mostly from the early seventeenth century. In 1927 he composed Gli uccelli (The Birds), a five-movement suite using eighteenth-century keyboard works imitating birdsongs. Indeed, most of his works are based on the music of the past.

Composed in 1924, Pini di Roma is the second in Respighi's trilogy of tone poems inspired by different aspects of the city of Rome and its history. The score, describing four widely separated locations in the city, contains a detailed description of this programmatic music:
The Pines of the Villa Borghese (a country estate with enormous grounds belonging to one of Rome’s most notable Renaissance families): Example 1 Children playing in what are now public gardens, they mimic marching soldiers and battles, Example 2 twittering and shrieking like swallows, then they swarm away and the scene changes abruptly to...

Pines near a Catacomb (the underground burial sites for the early Christians): “We see the shadows of the pines, which overhang the entrance to a catacomb. From the depths rises a mournful chant which reechoes solemnly, like a hymn, and then dies away mysteriously.” A long trumpet solo Example 3 is followed by a more military sounding theme combined with the chant, suggesting the tension between the ancient Roman empire and its Christian martyrs. Example 4

The Pines of the Janiculum (the highest hill in Rome, but not one of the famous seven, the location of a cult worshiping the god Janus): "Moonlight and the song of a nightingale enfold the pines on the Janiculum hill with mystery.” This movement features a beautiful clarinet solo Example 5 The voice of the nightingale is provided by a recording.

The Pines of the Appian Way (one of the great Roman roads leading south from the city): "Misty dawn on the Appian Way. The tragic country is guarded by the solitary pines. Indistinctly, incessantly, the rhythm of innumerable steps....visions of past glories: trumpets blare, and the army of the Consul advances the rising sun...mounting in triumph the Capitoline Hill.” The English horn gets center stage in this movement Example 6 – that is until the rest of the brass crash onto the scene.
Ironically, while Respighi uses the giant pines as symbols of Rome’s ancient past, these trees are relative newcomers to the eternal city. The species was introduced from Sardinia, probably in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.

There has been some controversy regarding Respighi’s political affiliation. The fact that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was particularly fond of the composer’s “Roman” tone poems and that Respighi accepted various honors from the Fascist government has led to the conclusion that Respighi was a Fascist supporter himself. His supporters, however, cite the composer’s intervention in 1931 to save Arturo Toscanini from a Fascist mob in Bologna, and his remarks against the regime for threatening the conductor. There is also an allegedly hidden anti-Fascist message in the final scene of his opera Lucrezia, written in 1935-6, when Fascism was at its height: "Death to the tyrants, you be leader, Brutus! - Freedom, to Rome!"
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017