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Program Notes - March 17 and 18, 2018

Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

In each movement of his Le Tombeau de Couperin, Maurice Ravel commemorates a friend of his who had died in the war. However somber the dedication, the piece is by no means a tragedy. As the composer explained, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.” A prime example of the staid neoclassicism sweeping over the musical landscape of war-scarred Europe, Ravel’s dances exhibit grace and poise in the face of terror and anarchy. Though orderly and mild, there is a sadness and confusion in the nostalgic melodies and a subtle but searing pain in the piquant harmonies. No matter how eloquently clothed, the scars of trauma remain just below the surface. Even amidst the refined airs and French perfumes, we cannot ignore that something has been lost. Ravel’s music evokes the atmosphere of a French baroque dance suite, rather than academically emulating Couperin’s music in particular. By doing so, Ravel harkens back to a bygone era of pre-revolution France, fueled by a broad faith in the redeeming power of rationalism and dressed up elegantly with tasteful ornamentation.

 

Rather than drawing attention to its own importance or originality, the music provides a meditative medium for the listener’s own reflection. Originally written as six movements for solo piano, Ravel’s 1919 orchestration of four of movements enhances the color palette of the expression and sharpens the tautness of the dance rhythms. Wafting in the breeze of the vaporous strings, the woodwinds spin out sinuous lines with virtuosic effortlessness. The final dance, the Rigaudon, closes the orchestral version of suite with a joyous dance. But even in the middle of this earthy celebration, the dance comes to a halt as a slowly haunting oboe and English horn solo meander over the barren landscape of the plucked string accompaniment. We may dance to remember the fallen, but we can never forget the tragedy that befell them.

 

Griffes: Poem for Flute and Orchestra

A foremost American master of musical impressionism, Charles Tomlinson Griffes was more concerned about mood than muscle in his compositions. In his Poem for Flute and Orchestra, melody prevails– this is no concerto of heroism, but rather a beguiling poem seduction. In the smoky and menacing atmosphere created by the cellos and basses, the solo flute takes up the tune with a delicate lyricism. There’s a bluesy quality to the harmonies, perhaps a subtle nod to the musical forces at work in the American popular music of the time. A middle section unleashes the bottled-up energies of the orchestra as they deploy a number of colorful and evocative maneuvers. Dancing along to the jaunty rhythms of the orchestra and tambourine, the solo flute twirls about flirtatiously before settling back into the mysterious haze with which the piece began. Although Griffes was not involved in the Great War, he was taken at the much-too-young age of 35 by the other great killer of his generation, the influenza epidemic of 1920.

 

Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow

In his most famous and enduring work, The Banks of the Green Willow, George Butterworth begins by evoking the lush allure of the English countryside and ends with throbbing pangs of loss. Following his deep interest in national folksong and lore, Butterworth sourced many of his melodies from the recordings he made on his tune-seeking field trips with fellow composer Ralph Vaughan Williams to Sussex in 1907. In addition to depicting the restive and nostalgic idyll, the piece is a tone poem based on the old ballad of the same title, which narrates the tragic death of a mother and her newborn as they are thrown overboard the ship captained by? her lover. The music accelerates into a seafaring rhythmic thrust and swells to a grand and emotional climax before dying away in a grim and hollow echo of the opening idyll’s glory.

 

Since the composer’s death, three years after the piece’s composition, Green Willow served as a poignant illustration of the tragedy that befell Butterworth and his generation in the wake of the Great War, serving as an elegy for the fallen. Determined and brave on the battlefield, Butterworth was awarded the military cross for his service, before he was shot in the head and killed by a sniper in the battle of Somme, age 31. He was buried in the trench and never received a proper burial. Although Butterworth never could have intended it when he composed the piece in 1913, Green Willow encapsulates the experience of his lost generation, but on a miniature scale. The sheer passion and brevity of the piece came to serve as a poetic illustration of the millions of lives cut short, taking its last breaths mere moments after it reached its zenith. 

Nielsen: Symphony No. 5

By the time Carl Nielsen began writing his fifth symphony, the project of symphonic unity and triumph appeared to be shattered by machine gun fire. Although Nielsen denied any specific influence of the Great War in his music, he was undeniably distraught by its ravages. Observing the great European disaster, he saw a world “in dissolution,” which had been perverted by the “spiritual syphilis” of nationalism, after which “none of us is the same as we were before.” Indeed, even before the war, a cooler, more detached, and pessimistic approach had swept over European music—draped in self-protecting irony and focused more on technical innovation than on the portrayal of hot-blooded humanity. How could Nielsen write such an affirmative symphony as his fifth in such dark times? He defies the urges of retrenchment and retreat not by ignoring the emotional scars of the crises, but by challenging them head on and wrestling his way to a buoyant, if not unambiguous, resolution.

 

To a less subtle and more extreme degree than its symphonic predecessors, the fifth is a cosmic battle of opposing forces. The human capacity to create clashes with our equally potent capacity to destroy. Empathetic consciousness does battle with sneering apathy, boundless energies protest the oppression of unyielding stasis. Although it does not follow the typical formal plan of a symphony, the work communicates easily with its audience through the sharp contours of its contrasts. For music that trades heavily in abstractions, there is something physical and almost carnal about its presentation of raw conflict. Like watching a Bruce Springsteen concert, you are meant to see the musicians sweat.

 

The symphonic workout begins gently, however, opening with a bare oscillation of two notes in the viola that last for nearly one hundred measures. Two meandering bassoons float along in space like bits of cosmic debris, vague in their ambitions and unsure of their goal. A sizzling symbol accompanies the violas as they break their routine to introduce the chromatic and slithering “evil” theme, as Nielsen dubbed it. The melody represents a threat–distant, yet imminent. New instrumental textures float in and out, but the music does not appear to be building towards anything. Rather than musical voices, the various lines seem to represent musical objects, incapable of acting or feeling. As the discombobulated melodies fade away to near nothingness, a snare drum breaks the silence with a militaristic tattoo. The timpani and strings trudge on in brutal lockstep with the tyrannical snare as the clarinet and flute fly above the battlefield, sneering down with savage apathy at the carnage. The bass and brass snarl menacingly from below. No heroism is to be found here, each instrument an accomplice to the terror and oppression. After what seems like an eternity of unyielding repetition, our focus slowly zooms out from the chasm of destruction until only a few faint murmurs from the tambourine and violins remain.

 

It is from this bleak, desiccated landscape that we enter the world of the Adagio, marked by full-blooded humanity and passion. The effect is quite sudden and resists any etiquette of seamless transitions. While glowing, the warmth should not be mistaken for quick resolution. The harmonies deepen in intensity as the snare drum begins a renewed assault. Even as the brass stand their ground in brave resistance, the anarchic snare threatens to tear everything apart with reckless abandon. But the elegant rise of the Adagio theme in the brass proves to be a worthy adversary. As the tension reaches its peak, the snare drummer is instructed by the score to improvise “entirely freely with all possible fantasy,”  playing as loudly and disruptively as possible with utter disregard for the rest of the orchestra. But by refusing to back down from the conflict, the brass are finally able overwhelm and absorb all of the negative energies around them, culminating the symphony’s most powerful cadence to a resplendent G major. The struggle is epic in magnitude, overturning the placid neutrality of the viola’s opening gambit. Over a bed of becalmed strings, the evil theme is transformed into a meditative reflection in the clarinet. In the final bars, the snare drum returns, no longer presenting a threat, as it fades away in reluctant cooperation.

 

If the first movement described resting, or to use Nielsen’s term, vegetative forces, the second movement showcases the energies of active, or alert actions. Unlike the blasé beginning of the first movement, the second unleashes an explosion of searing energies from the outset. Tangled hemiolas (rhythmic dissonances) confound any simple sense of rhythm and sudden grand pauses only exacerbate the tension. Amidst the hurly-burly, there are moments of lyricism, but they are fleeting and quickly toppled by the tsunami of kinetic energy. The strings join together in a vigorous unison, approximating the sound of an approaching army of mosquitoes. The entire symphonic fabric seems threatened as the humming strings swarm around it. After a brief transition, we arrive at the quiet threshold of the madcap fugue. A kaleidoscopic swirl of grotesqueries, the fugue maintains a steady rhythm as it begins a dance of death. Nightmarish brass, demonic clarinets, and shrieking strings all join in the orgy of recklessness. But this hyperactive level of activity cannot last, soon exhausting all of its fuel. A lone flute is left to pick up the pieces and make sense of it all, supported only by the stern drone of the cellos. In complete contrast to what came before, the muted string section regains sanity and control with an intense deliberative fugue, this time slow.

 

A paragon of rationality and measured debate, this fugue has an air of thoughtful problem-solving, removed from the need for urgent reaction, which has dogged the rest of the movement. It is here that the symphony reaches its peak of contrapuntal and harmonic complexity, both symbols of logic and intellectual achievement in the face of the otherwise reigning anarchy. At the peak of this tension, the bumptious opening section of the movement returns, seemingly out of nowhere. As in many other instances in the symphony, Nielsen is more interested by maximizing contrast in his transitions rather than smoothing them over seamlessly. After the strings being threatening to engulf the music with their infernal buzzing again, a timpani insistently pounds out the dominant key, leading inexorably to the brilliant blaze of the final chords. But the ending does not seem to flow out of a logically inevitable process as would be expected in such high-stakes symphonic arguments. Instead, it enters the scene as a divine intervention, pulled out of a hat or from a bag of symphonic tricks to keep the whole affair leading to chaos and anarchy yet again.

 

Although compellingly triumphant, so much remains unresolved. The destructive energies of the ending feel as potent and unrestrained as they do in the movement’s opening breaths. But perhaps the ideal of perfect resolution is a romantic illusion anyway, an illusion which Nielsen had no use for, least of all in the wake of the European disaster that took a toll of more than 16 million lives. Even in the face of all this destruction, Nielsen was a staunch believer in the vitality of the human spirit, insisting on our “continual protest against the thought of death,” in the face of such destructive forces. Perhaps this glorious ending should be considered in this light, as a protest against the thought of–rather than a complete victory over–death.