|Bernstein @ 100|
Short Ride in a Fast Machine
John Adams is generally associated with minimalism, a style of composition pioneered by Terry Riley, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich in which short musical motives are repeated, gradually changing the harmony or rhythm one note at a time. While the repetition in the works of Riley, Glass and Reich can seem interminable, Adams adds more drama and musical direction and a more accessible tonal and melodic language to his scores.
Born in Worcester, MA, Adams studied at Harvard University before moving west to settle in California. From 1979 to 1985, during his tenure as composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony, he established a reputation with the success of such works as Harmonium, settings of three poems by Emily Dickenson.
In 1987, Adams’s collaboration with stage director Peter Sellars catapulted him into international fame with the Grammy-winning opera Nixon in China. In 1991, Adams composed The Death of Klinghoffer with a libretto by the poet Alice Goodman. Not only did both works become the most performed operas in recent history, but both were also televised by PBS. Klinghoffer was filmed in 2003 on location in the Mediterranean aboard a cruise liner, the most authentic venue for the presentation of the opera on film. In September of 2003 Adams succeeded Pierre Boulez as Composer in Residence at Carnegie Hall.
Adams composed Short Ride in a Fast Machine in 1986 on a commission from the Great Woods Music Festival in Mansfield, Massachusetts where it was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. It is a good example of Adams’s particular take on minimalism; its melody – if one can call it that – is monotonous, but the rhythm and meter constantly and unexpectedly shift, as does the instrumentation, keeping a sense of both exhilaration and scariness. Towards the end of this short piece, Adams's break-away into more rapidly changing notes in the trumpets, which carry the upper line, creates a quasi melody, or fanfare, with echoes of Aaron Copland and John Williams in its harmonic language.
Asked about the title, Adams said, "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?"
Serenade for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion
All his life, Leonard Bernstein vacillated between the two sides of his musical personality, producing such popular musical fare as Candide, Fancy Free and West Side Story on the one hand, and the Mass, the three symphonies and the Serenade on the other. Composed in 1954 on a grant from the Koussevitzky Foundation, Bernstein’s Serenade could be called a five-movement violin concerto in all but name. According to the composer the inspiration came from a reading of Plato’s dialogue, Symposium. Bernstein wrote: “The music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet. The “relatedness” of the movements does not depend on common thematic material, but rather on a system whereby each movement evolves out of elements in the preceding one.”
For the benefit of those looking for literary allusions, Bernstein gave the following guideposts to the five movements, but one should not think of each movement as a musical portrait of the speaker nor a description of his spin on the topic.
“Phaedrus; Pausanias (Lento; Allegro). Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros... Pausanias continues by describing the duality of lover and beloved.” The movement opens with an intensely romantic solo for the violin, taken up contrapuntally with the string sections in turn. The theme of the violin solo will reappear throughout the piece, although often fragmented – as a kind of "love" motto. It is an introduction to the dance-like Allegro that recasts the theme in a more playful vein.
“Aristophanes (Allegretto). Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but, instead, that of the bedtime story teller invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love.” The movement is actually a modified classical minuet and trio, delicate and lightly textured. The whimsical Trio takes off from the first notes of the violin motto.
“Erixymachus (Presto). The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.” In this work, Bernstein uses percussion as a kind of exclamation point, a means of announcing a new section of music. This movement features the xylophone, and the violin later starts off the little fugue.
“Agathon (Adagio). Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue. Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s power, charms and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.” This movement recalls the romanticism and the motto of the introduction. The violas playing the motto as the violin floats above it with a seemingly endless cantilena.
“Socrates; Alcibiades (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love... The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration.” The first part of the movement has a dark, melancholy cast. The writing is more chromatic in both orchestra and solo violin setting up the abrupt change in mood. The Allegro is suffused with a jazzy energy, almost a contest of wills between the orchestra and the romantic violin. Although the soloist is soon caught up in the spirited dance, he seems determined to steer the discussion back on course with brief phrases of the first movement theme. Nevertheless, both the romantic soloist and the dancing orchestra retain the first few notes of the motto. In the final moments of the piece, the whole orchestra transforms the violin’s statement, redefining and energizing it until it gets swept away in the festivities.
Symphony No. 3
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Aaron Copland was the creator of what has become an almost stereotypical “down home” American musical style. In such early works from the 1920s as his Piano Concerto of 1926, Copland used a jazzy, hard-edged musical language, culminating in his highly dissonant Variations for Piano of 1930. The public refused to accept these works, especially the Piano Concerto: not since the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1911 has a premiere garnered as much controversy, not to mention invective, as its premiere in January 1927 in Boston, under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky.
By the mid-1930s Copland was beginning to feel “… an increasing dissatisfaction with the relation of the music-loving public and the living composer.” In order to reach a wider audience he gradually began to simplify his style, making it more accessible yet without sacrificing artistic value. He composed a series of works, mainly ballets, in a simple style that incorporated or imitated traditional folk tunes. The first work in this more popular vein was El Salón Mexico (1936), followed by the suites of “Americana” ballets that have become concert hall favorites, including Billy the Kidd, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring.
But Copland did not give up his ambition to write in the more classical genres, the sonata, concerto or symphony. The opportunity came in 1943 through a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation to write a symphony for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Copland began work on his Symphony No. 3 in August 1944 and finished it in September 1946, barely in time for the premiere three weeks later. It is his longest orchestral work and employs a large orchestra, including extra woodwinds (four flutes), four trumpets, piano and two harps.
Copland provided detailed program notes for the work, stating at the outset that it contained no folk or popular material. Later in his life, he expanded his stylistic repertory into serialism and free atonality, but the Symphony No. 3 bears the unmistakable signature of his ballets – however much he wanted to distance himself from them. The lively second movement and the gentle third movement often sound like a sequel to Appalachian Spring. Also present throughout the Symphony are his characteristic open fifths and fourths that have come to be associated with “American” music in film scores and commercials.
In his memoirs, Copland wrote, using program notes he prepared for the premiere: “It was composed in the general form of an arch in which the central portion, that is the second movement scherzo, is the most animated and the final movement is an extended coda, presenting a broadened version of the opening material. Both the first and third theme of the first movement are referred to again in later movements. The second movement stays close to the normal symphonic procedure of a usual scherzo, while the third is the freest of all in formal structure, its various sections intended to emerge in a continuous flow, somewhat in the manner of a closely knit set of variations. Some of the writing in the third movement is for very high strings and piccolo, with no brass except single horn and trumpet. The fourth is closest to a customary sonata-allegro form, although the recapitulation is replaced by an extended coda, presenting many ideas from the work, including the opening theme.”
The Symphony opens with a theme using open fifths, fourths and octave, immediately recognizable as Copland. For his second theme, the composer works in those intervals he didn't use the first time around, sixths, thirds and seconds, while retaining the same slow tempo and even rhythm. His third theme introduces faster note values in a beautiful melody for English horn and upper strings. Because of the similar nature of the themes, they blend together, Copland working with them like a master weaver.
The Scherzo begins with an extended fanfare out of which the main theme will be built. The lovely lyricism of the Trio, introduced by the oboe, creates a sharp contrast to the mood of the Scherzo. For both sections, Copland goes well beyond the formal constraints of the classical scherzo and trio, freely developing each section, then combining the two themes in a coda.
Copland's own remarks, quoted above, capture the general formal nature of the third movement Andantino, quasi allegretto but fail to point out the surprises. It begins quietly but intensely with the theme in the violins. How Copland handles free variation can be heard in the following example in which the English horn begins a new melody in a new key while the oboe enters, restating analtered version of the theme, followed by the strings with yet another melody. About halfway through, a new melody in the oboe flows into a change of mood and tempo, corresponding to the contrasting middle section of a classical slow movement ABA form. A return to the andantino leads without pause into the final movement. Here and throughout the Symphony, the writing – particularly in the syncopated dancelike passages – closely resembles the spirited moments of Appalachian Spring.
While not borrowing from other composers, Copland borrowed from himself in the last movement, which follows the third without interruption. He used his Fanfare for the Common Man, composed in 1942 for Eugene Goossens, then conductor of the Cincinnati Orchestra, to form the basis of the movement. But rather than opening as a fanfare, it is first introduced pianissimo by the flutes and clarinets, then suddenly blasted fortissimo by the brass and percussion. Subtley, a solo oboe transforms the fanfare into a dance in a birdcall-like melody. Copland later combines it with the fanfare theme before going on to new material, still in a dance – even a little Latin – mode. The Symphony concludes with a return to the fanfare. The affirmative tone of the Symphony, especially the Finale, reflects the euphoric spirit of the country at the time; Copland called it, an end-of-war piece.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017|