Program Notes--by Julian Killough-Miller
D’un matin de printemps Lili Boulanger (1918)
The younger sister of the celebrated composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, Lili had a groundbreaking career of her own as a promising composer whose life was cut short by illness. She received international acclaim before turning 20 and was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome composition prize in 1913 with her cantata Faust et Helene. The year prior, she had entered the contest, but had collapsed during the performance. Her early life was marked by this combination of bright potential and tragic circumstances. After suffering poor health at age two, her father died when she was six. The pain of that loss stayed with her for the rest of her life. She spent much of her childhood rapidly ascending through the most prestigious musical institutions with a sense of purpose, letting no time go to waste. She died in 1918 at age 24 after suffering from Crohn's disease, having been notified in 1916 that she had only 2 years to live. D’un matin de printemps (one spring morning) was the last orchestral piece she’d ever write.
Her musical output was vast for such a brief career. A student of Gabriel Faure and her sister Nadia, she integrated the impressionistic moods and technique of Debussy with the late Romantic style of Faure. Much of her work was avant-garde and somewhat dark, exploring the limits of tonality and instrumental shading.
D’un matin de printemps, however, is adventurous and even playful, like a stroll through an enchanted forest. The instrumentation is piquant; originally written as a duet for violin and piano, the orchestral version adds painstaking detail and color to make the early morning woodland atmosphere come to life. The harmonies are unstable and adventurous, the rhythms propulsive and restless. A melody emerges in the flute, which will course through the movement in various instrumental guises. The triangle and the surging strings almost give a flavor of otherworldly fantasy. This fantastical scene setting is reminiscent of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune in character and scope of imagination. A slow section introduces a falling chromatic gesture, evocative of something sinister. Passions fester and swell amidst this foreboding environment. Staccato woodwinds chirp dissonantly in a sort of chase scene. Here, the atmosphere does all the storytelling. Boulanger careens between moods effortlessly, lingering in one place for barely more than ten seconds before a new tempo and instrument group takes over.
The ending builds towards a climax as momentum builds and the orchestration thickens. After arriving at a full-throated peroration of the main theme in the brass and strings, the texture begins to unravel. The piece ends on a somewhat uncharacteristic minor chord, like a gripping novel that comes to a sudden halt too hastily to be satisfying. Boulanger’s tone poem captures an impressive amount of scenery through its impressionist lens in 5 minutes, although just like her brief career, we’re left with the feeling that the full extent of the adventure has been cut short.
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (Op. 74) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1893)
The key to digging deeper into Tchaikovsky’s sixth and final symphony lies in the bleak depths of its final pages. Whereas the traditional 19th century symphony typically concludes with brassy fireworks and triumphant major chord reaffirmations, Tchaikovsky’s sixth and final entry in the genre ends with a barely beating heart that eventually just gives out. Strings mourn with falling sighs and eventually drop out one by one until all that remains is the grim threnody sung by whispering basses and celli in the subterranean depths of their register. Tchaikovsky’s last work ends with a fatal whimper, not a bang, as we witness the dying of the light. Despite whatever expectations we may have brought to the symphony, no happy ending will be included with the price of admission tonight.
Ever since Beethoven’s turbulent Fifth Symphony, composers had injected greater and greater undercurrents of darkness in their symphonies, using the full power of the orchestra to push the limits of angst in musical expression. However, the transcendence over the trauma presented in earlier movements was baked into the structure of the genre in the form of an affirmative and major key conclusion. This format was often summarized with the latin phrase per aspera ad astra (from adversity to the stars) and often symbolized the triumph of the individual (i.e., the hero) over the forces of fate, death, and oppression (i.e., evil). The greater the suffering in the early movements or even the beginning of the finale, the greater the emotional payoff at the glorious conclusion. While not all symphonies experimented with darkness in this way, nearly all dark symphonies before Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” ended with beams of light.
In his previous two symphonies, he had broken ground stylistically by importing an unprecedented blast of brass from Russian opera alongside an obsession with the waltz in addition to other dance forms. This would figure for a Russian composer known for his outstanding ballets (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty). In the Fourth Symphony, he used brass fanfare to represent fate, or as he wrote in a letter to his patron Nadezhda von Meck, “the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness ...There is nothing to be done but to submit to it and lament in vain.” In the Fourth Symphony, the protagonist just narrowly avoids fate at the end of a rambunctious chase scene. The Fifth Symphony explores redemption as theme bleak, bilious theme of the first movement is transfigured to the radiant glow of the triumphant march of the finale. But in the Sixth, fate wins the day as it presides over the funereal finale.
Tchaikovsky was rather confident about his last symphony leading up to its premiere: “I have never felt such self-satisfaction, such pride, such happiness, as in the consciousness that I am really the creator of this beautiful work.” However, after the premiere was met with some confusion, given the unorthodox arrangement of the movements and the overall tone of the piece, his brother Modest suggested the subtitle of Pateticheskaya. This roughly translates to “passionate” or “emotional,” more in the vein of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata than the French Pathétique, as it would later be mistranslated. And then, nine days after the symphony’s premier, Tchaikovsky died of cholera. When the symphony was performed a few weeks after his death, listeners (somewhat naturally) began to connect the unexpectedly morbid ending of the symphony with the composer’s unexpected demise shortly thereafter.
This sudden ending for a man who by all accounts was considered to be in good spirits and good health raised some questions from biographers and contemporaries alike. To many, the cholera diagnosis seemed beneath his station, as it was widely perceived to be a scourge of the underclass and not a threat to a dignified aristocrat like Tchaikovsky. Many conspiracy theories were borne from this skepticism to the original diagnosis. Whispers of suicide emerged, and these whispers were given credence by those who looked to his final composition as evidence. Of course, there is where historiography diverges from history, as no real evidence exists proving his suicide much less the autobiographical nature of his work.
To be sure, Tchaikovsky’s love life was not without its drama. As was common at the time for those whose sexuality stood outside the norm, he sought societal security in a heterosexual marriage, while carrying out his amorous affairs with men discreetly. A former student, Antonina Mijukova threatened to kill herself if the composer wouldn’t meet with her, early in their courtship. Whatever front his explicitly loveless marriage with Antonina may have afforded Tchaikovsky, it tormented him to no end, to the point that he once jumped off a bridge into the frigid River Neva to contract pneumonia as a means of matrimonial escape.
When putting together the pieces latent in the composer’s supposed suicide note, the composer’s supposed guilt over his being gay was viewed by some as the cause of his supposed suicide. He feared being outed and shamed, the theory goes, by his contemporaries from music school, the so-called “court of honor.” Some even further suggested that the composer’s guilt over incestuous relationship with his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davydov, the dedicatee of the symphony, was what caused him to take his life. What started as a poignant and tragic symphony, followed by the sudden and tragic death of the composer, evolved over the years into a salacious and wildly speculative fan-fiction program.
While the circumstances and specious mythology surrounding the piece have become inseparable from the music, the Pathétique has sustained so much attention over the years not only because of the window it may have provided into the composer’s life, but also because of the catharsis many listeners experience by surfing on its emotional vicissitudes. The opening curtain rises on a bleak landscape. Basses and bassoons intone a tragic figure that rises upwards in futility, only to fall into despair as darkness washes over the horizon like a charcoal blanket. As a whole, the outer movements are weighed down by these scales that descend into the abyss. The lugubrious introduction sets the tone for the symphony: despite the brilliance of the symphony’s highs, the center of gravity will always be in its lows.
Following the introduction, an agitated and unsettled melody dances over the grim tread of the mourning basses. Despite the grim foundations, the woodwinds swirl about gracefully. No matter how heavy the symphonic impulse grows, Tchaikovsky’s balletic impulse towards elegance and clarity cannot be suppressed. Momentum builds as the bellicose brass foretell the battle to come later in the movement’s section. As the energy dissipates, the cellos wind away as the focus zooms out and shifts to a different mood entirely. For his second area, Tchaikovsky delivers as warm and passionate a love melody as the entire Romantic era could produce. The soundworld of this theme seems entirely immune from the darkness of the introduction. By walling off such a radiant major key episode, complete with its own set of subthemes, Tchaikovsky sets the stage for the conflict of ideas and moods the symphony will explore: one hopeless and despondent, one unabashedly romantic. The accompaniment fades into the background as a solo clarinet followed by a bass clarinet fades away to a quadruple p dynamic, an almost cartoonishly quiet indication by the composer. However, by now we have learned that this symphony will trade in dramatic contrasts, almost amounting to an irony of form. An absurd level of romantic gushing will inevitably lead to an equally absurd level of violence. An extreme quiet will result in an extreme explosion of noise.
And so it does. Prepare to be rocked from your seat as the dulcet strains of the evanescing clarinet give way to an absolute rocket launch from the full orchestra. Whereas Beethoven and Brahms were praised for the deft organicism of their transitions, where every measure seemed to inevitably spawn from the previous one, Tchaikovsky seems unconcerned with such subtleties, favoring dramatic contrast for theatrical effect instead. The all-out war of the development section is among Tchaikovsky’s most intense passages, even rivaling the turbulence and angst of the early twentieth century composers like Mahler, Strauss, and Shostakovich; this is Tchaikovsky’s heavy metal moment. The tension is unrelenting as the storm brews and lightning strikes at every turn. The theme from the first section has been put through a particle accelerator and the resulting atomic energy finally erupts in the tragic recapitulation at the movement’s climax. The descending figures take on a funereal heft as they seem to be dragging a soul down into the fiery depths of the underworld. And yet somehow, a phoenix bearing the romantic optimism of the love theme rises again from the ashes in the recapitulation of the second theme, seemingly unscathed by the carnage of the development.
In contrast to the turbulent Romantic drama of the first movement, the stilted waltz of the second movement provides relief and perspective. Revealing his commitment to importing dance into the symphony, Tchaikovsky serves up a waltz in 5/4 time: ungainly and yet refined. Despite the emotional depths the symphony would strive to, the composer could still put on a happy face and dance. Although this intermezzo will come nowhere near the intensity of the previous movement, dark omens remain; during a trio section, the timpani and bass pound out an unyielding tattoo hundreds of times, pulsing threateningly in the distance as the strings weep in descending scales that harken back to the earlier tragedy. The dance of this movement is at once opulent and wistful. It seems to look back nostalgically to the carefree aristocratic splendor of a lost era. The dazzling splendor of a life well lived only serves to make its loss that much more painful.
The march of the Allegro molto vivace is somewhat of an enigma. It carries the rambunctious jubilation that we would expect of a finale. So much so, in fact, that audiences customarily applaud at the end. The confidence and sheer swagger of the movement seems to be tempting fate with its unfettered grandeur. Regal at every turn, this could almost serve as processional music for some sort of musical deity’s assent to the pantheon. The ending is almost comically self-assured, with cascades of major scales falling down like gilded fountains on the whole parade. It’s hard not to get pumped up by the movement.
Were this the finale of the symphony, none of the mythology surrounding the piece and the composer’s death would be plausible since it concludes with such an affirmative major key embrace, although crucially not in the main key tonic key of the symphony. Somewhat of a false summit, the euphoria here seems to be almost entirely negated by the tragic finale that follows. In a way, this is what makes Tchaikovsky’s unique entry into the genre so very symphonic; it relies on the expectations of the transcendent minor-major key Romantic symphony for the irony so poignant. No symphony so brazenly follows immediately on the heels of such triumph with such devastation.
The finale makes it clear from the first measures that things are not going to end well. Washing away the golden veneer of the previous movement with battery acid, we now see the rot of the tortured soul lying beneath. As Schoenberg once said, “The finale starts with a cry and ends with a moan.” Anguished plunges lead to elegiac consolations. Whereas the first movement showcases a battle between fate and its victim, here the protagonist of the symphony seems to have succumbed to defeat from the outset and will now spend twelve tragic minutes alternating between weeping bitterly and shrieking in pain. One breathtaking passage three minutes in showcases the basses and bassoons descending into the dark depths of the underworld and holding on the bleakest, blackest chord in their cavernous registers for an uncomfortable amount of time before just stopping completely without any of the dissonances resolved. It’s almost like we’re witnessing a body being devoured by worms underground while it is still crying out in agony. The B section offers somewhat of a reprieve as it looks back at the sweetness of the life being left behind. The passion cannot be contained for long though, as chromatic churning within threatens to tear away at the repose of the string’s attempts at nostalgia, as though they’re continuously crying out for just one more moment of life. Despite their impassioned pleas, we are reminded time after time in this movement that there will be no redemption, no salvation, only death. After a few last spasmodic outbursts of pain, we land on a somber brass chorale, which imparts a layer of ceremonial finality to the death. From this point forward, we will hear no more from our victim, with the rest of the movement representing a sort of musical “I told you so,” sung by fate itself.
At the symphony’s close, we land on that fateful ostinato which generated so much controversy when its composer dropped dead nine days after the premiere. Basses throb with an off-beat note in a funereal ostinato. The melody’s attempts to break free weaken and eventually die away until we are left only with the grim trudge of the basses’ funereal pulse. The beats on the EKG slow down until they cease. The heartbeat finally gives out. The light has faded away completely.
Violin Concerto in D Minor (Op. 47) Jean Sibelius (1904-05)
So much of Sibelius’s work pits the inexorable striving of the individual against the unyielding power and serenity of nature. But whereas so many Romantic composers before him took the individual’s side while creating a soundtrack for the heroic struggles of the soul, the great Finnish composer often blurred the distinction, allowing nature to absorb the subjective strains of ego-driven melodies into dispassionate undulations of tectonically shifting textures and harmonies. One can observe the increasing prominence of this sublime murmuring music through the trajectory of his symphonic style. The second symphony explores the power of swirling white noise in the foreground, particularly in the first and last movements. The fourth stands fearfully at the brink of its collapse into nothingness. In the fifth, perhaps his most celebrated work, soaring nostalgic melodies unravel and explode into cosmic debris, finally finding peace with the transcendent meaningless of the universe.
This cycle of decay and regeneration is ideally suited to orchestral music, with its multitude of voices, its evocation of a thriving ecosystem, and its capacity to sonically overwhelm any individual performer with its collective might. But the focus on uncontrolled organicism and the move away from the singularity of voice found enigmatic and powerful expression in Sibelius’s one entry in the concerto genre.
It is no accident his sole concerto would be written for the violin. As he once put it, “The violin took me by storm, and for the next ten years it was my dearest wish, my overriding ambition, to become a great virtuoso.” Indeed, Sibelius had (somewhat late) pursued a career as a professional violinist, only to realize he lacked the training and physical temperament for its demands. Still, it is not hard to hear the composer’s voice through the solo instrument at different times in the piece, even if he wouldn’t be the one brandishing the bow after all. He even went as far to associate the violin with his compositional inspiration, remarking, “When I play, I am filled with a strange feeling; it is as though the insides of the music opened up to me.” The solo performance in the concerto has moments of seemingly endless creative fertility, particularly the development section cadenza of the first movement.
However, his creative process was often stymied by bouts of depression and self-loathing, which he often treated by drinking away his nights at the local taverns of Helsinki and procrastinating in the face of looming deadlines. At one point, the composer’s avoidant behavior got so bad that his friend Axel Carpelan wrote to Sibelius’s wife, Aino, that “Jean can only be saved by the efforts of those closest to him; left to himself he will go to pieces. He has hobnobbed far too long and often with the dregs of Helsinki ‘culture’ for him to be able to drag himself out of their clutches of his own free will." By “Helsinki culture,” Carpelan refers to the enabling environment of alcohol abuse depicted in the famous painting by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, “The Problem,” which depicted Sibelius engorged with drink on a night out on the town, eyes rolled back into his head. Aino even had to drag him out of the tavern one night with the help of a friend to get him home to finish writing the concerto before the deadline. Listening to the solo violin part, we can hear both the joyful inspiration he took from the instrument as well as the sense of frustration towards his own creative impotence that he felt in his periods of writing block.
The concerto begins a gust of frigid air, immediately transporting the listener to the spacious canvas upon which the violinist will inscribe its story. Lasting only a few measures, the chilling sensation of stillness is brief — the violin soon swoops in and soars to new lyrical heights, calling down to us like a swan overhead. From the concerto’s first pages, we can tell that the soloist will not deal in dispassionate utterances. In the first movement, seemingly every gesture smolders with an intensity that cannot be contained by the orchestra’s mellow aura. The writing for violin is intensely virtuosic, to an almost Paganinian degree. Like the first theme, the second theme, in the major key, emerges in a subdued form, but then quickly escalates to no-holds-barred intensity, throbbing with nostalgia and pointing towards an uncertain future. The final theme group thrusts forward with orchestral surges—what was once placid and covered in ice now wails with tempestuous violence. As the energy dissipates, bassoons and cellos wallow in falling intervals of jagged dissonance, almost as if the orchestra has run out of things to say.
Amidst this abyss of orchestral resignation, the soloist takes the floor, with a stirring cadenza in the place of a traditional development section. Moving about in an endless cascade of scales, arpeggiations, and pyrotechnics, we get the sense that the solo violin is afraid of ever pausing to take a breath. The unceasing creativity almost seems to be in protest of the orchestra's spacious detachment. The soloist will fight with every ounce of blood sweat and tears to escape the oblivion that the orchestra points towards. Solemn bassoons emerge with a recapitulation of the main theme and put an end to the soloist’s soliloquy somewhat sheepishly, as if arriving late to the meeting. The soloist finally runs out of steam on what would be a climactic cadence had the bassoons not changed the tonality of the conversation beneath it. In the recapitulation, the orchestra has a much stronger role as the soloist has to fight for airtime with a number of vocal instrument groups. The time, the striking abyss drawn by the dissonant bassoons before the cadenza explodes with the thunder of timpani and the otherworldly power of the brass. After returning to a tense stillness, a brief and fiery coda races away, with the frantic ardor of the thrill-seeking solo violin reaching towards a new extreme, no matter how recklessly.
The Adagio di molto provides a much-needed respite from the hurly-burly of the previous movement. Pairs of woodwinds poke their heads out like curious creatures in the forest after a storm has passed. Open fifths in the horns open up the sonic panoply, ushering in the restorative wisdom of nature in which the soloist can find a few moments of repose. The violin sings an unadorned but expressively charged aria of wholesome yearning over the hymnic buoyancy of the horn’s harmonic cushion. String pizzicati run up and down with scalar activity, waking up the forces of the orchestra from their stoic slumber. In the central section of the movement, the orchestra delivers a full-throated elaboration of the mysterious and searching woodwind theme from the opening measures. As the arioso theme returns in the violin, the orchestra embroiders the soul-searching of the violin with consolatory cadences, an affirmative embrace of the soloist’s striving. While the darkness and angst of the first movement ends without any hopeful resolution, the second movement soothes with a hymnic balm and whispers, “It’s all going to be okay.”
The Allegro ma non tanto sheds the melodic and harmonic journeys of the previous movements and embraces the bodily freedom of a vigorous dance. Famously labeled a “polonaise for polar bears” in a review by the English critic Donald Tovey, the finale’s savory dance rhythms snap and sway along with a joie de vivre rarely found in Sibelius’s catalog. The carefree violin gyrates whimsically to the heavy-footed stomping of the local dance band. There’s something seductively sensual about the solo violin’s swaying, inviting you to join along, provided that you can keep pace with those polar bears.