Program Notes--Julian Killough-Miller
Jump to Notes on the Individual Pieces:
Symphony No. 3 in A Minor "Scottish" (op.56)
Felix Mendelssohn 1842
Arson Fahim 2023
Piano Concerto No.3 in E Major
Béla Bartók 1945
Symphony No. 3 in A Minor “Scottish” (Op. 56)
Felix Mendelssohn 1842
As many an avant-garde Austro-German composers discovered in the mid-19th century, instrumental music is a challenging vehicle for storytelling. Musical forms generally follow a different logic than narratives, and reconciling the two can certainly be intriguing, but it almost always leaves something to be desired.
An attractive and lighter-weight alternative was the ever-charming musical travelog. The music need only be evocative enough of the place it sets out to depict to succeed. Settings are at once specific and highly abstract, which makes music a perfect vehicle for conjuring a sense of place that is at once legible and yet highly personal.
One way of entrenching a piece in a place is to quote or at least emulate its folk music. This is a relatively simple, though not uncontroversial practice, based around the customs of a location’s people. Mendelssohn didn’t do much of that here, considering that no Scottish folk melodies are quoted throughout, in sharp contrast to the practices of, say, the much later and more precise folk stylings of Balakirev in Russia or Bartók in Hungary. However, he does make use of the so-called “Scotch snap” throughout –a sharply punctuated dotted rhythm–and the folksy pentatonic scale in the second movement.
Another, more abstract method of evoking setting is through musical abstractions of landscape, capturing the poetic essence of mountains, fields, deserts, rivers, and oceans through musical metaphors and orchestration. But how can an orchestra play a Scottish moor, or depict the austere grandeur of the Highlands?
Part of the power is through association. If Mendelssohn tells us to think of Scotland when we hear his innovative yet traditional symphony, we’ll make the associations on our own, and it will add a layer of meaning to the work. If he tells us the introduction evokes the ruins of an Edinburgh castle–as he does–we’ll tend to follow his lead.
As a listener in 2023 who has centuries of musical nationalism at their disposal and at least a faint awareness of cultural appropriation, the connection of this symphony to Scotland would seem tenuous at best. This is not Scottish music, nor is it trying to be. It’s more of a musical postcard, and considering the fraught legacy of more indulgent forms of exoticism in 19th and 20th century classical music, there’s something gently reassuring about this lack of cultural engagement. (For those seeking a musical experience more deeply rooted in Scottish folk song and mythology, check out the Caledonian metal band Saor.)
It was a trip in 1829 that inspired the Scottish Symphony, even though he would not finish composing the work until 1842. On a conducting junket to London, he decided to take a walking tour of the Scottish Highlands with his friend Karl Klingemann. He wrote in a letter, “NEXT AUGUST I AM GOING TO SCOTLAND, with a rake for folk songs, an ear for the lovely, fragrant countryside, and a heart for the bare legs of the natives.” As part of their journey, they arranged a meeting with the legendary author of medieval Scottish history and lore, Sir Walter Scott at his home in Abbotsford. Scott was a Romantic literary hero to both men, but alas, the meeting was a disappointment, and Scott barely uttered more than a few words in response to their fanboy inquiries. It’s true what they say after all: never meet your heroes.
Undeterred, the duo continued to explore the vast landscapes of Northernmost Britain, stopping in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Oban, and the islands of Staffa and Iona. The craggy sea cliffs of the Atlantic coast inspired the composer to write Fingal’s Cave, otherwise known as the Hebrides Overture. When considering local folk music versus landscape music, Mendelssohn attested to overwhelmingly prefer the latter. While his gloomy and craggy music in his Scottish works haunts the air with mystery-faded grandeur, he claimed to loathe the local folk music, particularly the reedy whinings of bagpipes: “Infamous, vulgar, out-of-tune trash…It is distracting and has given me a toothache already… altogether their music is beyond conception.”
The germ of the Scottish Symphony originated in Mendelssohn’s viewing of the dilapidated Holyrood Castle in Edinburgh, where Queen Mary’s adulterous lover, David Rizzio, was rumored to have been stabbed 56 times by Mary’s husband. He wrote in a letter to his family, “The chapel beside it has lost its roof and is overgrown with grass and ivy, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything there is ruined, decayed and open to the clear sky. I believe that I have found there today the beginning of my Scotch Symphony.” He would place this brooding theme as the slow introduction to the first movement, and its contours would inform the themes throughout the remaining movements, most notably the coda of the finale.
This use of a motto theme and cyclic symphonic, though not entirely unprecedented, was highly novel. It influenced symphonic composers as far ranging as Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Franck, and Tchaikovsky. Another innovative feature was the specified lack of pauses between movements. Evidently, Mendelssohn loathed the distraction of clapping between movements that was customary at the time, so he wrote the following note into the score:
The movements of this symphony must follow one another immediately, and must not be separated by the customary long pauses.
The work begins with the aforementioned depiction of the Edinburgh ruins, orchestrated for divided violas and somber winds. With only a few bars, Mendelssohn effectively evokes the gloomy but grand atmosphere. The introduction has its own truncated form, and it is awfully long by the symphonic standards of the day. The texture builds and from the opening frame of decay grows a swelling life force, as if the camera invites to travel back in time to the days of old, before Scottish sovereignty was stripped away by the English crown.
The sonata allegro begins in earnest with a shift to a buoyant 6/8 time, springing forth from the plodding 3/4 of the introduction. What’s somewhat unusual about this first theme is that Mendelssohn calls for it to be played as quietly as possible, as though it just rode into earshot from afar. The phantasmagorical melody gradually swells into the foreground, and the thunder of hooves and drums draw near.
What sets Mendelssohn apart as a composer is his seamless blending of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s more exaggerated qualities. He uses Mozart’s deft, nimble touch and expert characterization to smooth out some of the rougher edges of Beethoven’s unruly passions, while still wielding elements of the latter composer’s insistent idealism and grandeur. What results is a musical world of wonder and piquant imagination, on full display in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, Italian Symphony, Hebrides Overture, and of course, the Scottish Symphony. As such, he imbues the soundscape of the “Scottish” with an almost fairy-tale sense of adventure. The stakes don’t feel real as they might in a turbulent Beethoven work, nor do they seem particularly personal. Instead, they invite the listener to slip into the medieval world of Ivanhoe, and the kings of old.
Perhaps the most storybook element of the symphony is the third theme leading into the first movement development section. The violins slither through gently minor chord dissonances that soothe as they threaten with a serpentine hiss. Part of what makes the tune so mesmerizing is that it is cast as a swaying lullaby (compare this to the sway and sweep of Brahms Second Symphony lullaby in the cellos, first movement second theme).
The development begins by plunging deeper into the ancient depths of Loch Ness with a particularly dark harmony in the winds that continues to sink down. The pulse maintains an anxious presence, atop which melodic fragments float by. The storybook theme returns, but this time in a radiant major key, providing an uncanny moment of majesty: the haunted glimmer of buried treasure from a sunken shipwreck.
After a stormy coda, the movement ends with a return to the gloomy introductory material, as we zoom out of the scene, back to the present-day frame of the crumbling ruins. Mendelssohn’s choice to conclude the way it began lends the movement a nice self-contained symmetry, while also refreshing the listener’s memory of key material that will return throughout the subsequent movements.
Without a pause, we launch into the supernova of a scherzo that is the second movement. Taking up a completely different tone from the previous movement, this zippy four-minute movement bursts forth with sunshine. No wonder the movement only lasts four or so minutes–the orchestra might keel over if it went on any longer! But what proves to be a relentless drive for the orchestra makes for an exhilarating ride for the listener. The melodies are bright, bouncy, and easy to grasp. Though the pentatonic melody sounds folksy, it’s not particularly Scottish. His use of the Scotch snap rhythm does root it a bit in the Scottish folk tradition, but only nominally, and Mendelssohn himself denied any connection so literal.
The first movement washed over like a quixotic dream of epic grandeur, with the faded glory of doomed monarchic lines and knights in once-gleaming armor. In contrast, the Vivace non troppo second movement derives its energy from the soil and sweat of the village. The third movement adagio will return again to the sublime, though this time with an influx of holy solemnity and martial majesty.
The adagio begins with an indeterminate harmony, which takes some time to find its footing. The violins sing out an extended melody, modestly phrased and gently intoned. In contrast to the quicksilver kaleidoscope of the second movement, the adagio features full-breathed paragraphs. The secondary theme takes the form of a stately salvo, fraught with harmonic tension and a triumphant return of the majestically dotted rhythm. The two opposing forces of the movement–one a prayer, the other a demonstration of power–don’t conflict so much as they reveal two aspects of the movement’s character. The kindness and human embrace of the primary material makes the contrasting theme group all the more noble and impressive.
The finale was originally marked Allegro guerriero, acknowledging from the outset the martial quality of the symphony’s closing chapter. Amidst the churning backdrop of the low winds and violas, violins soar into battle, once again brandishing spiky dotted rhythms in keeping with the previous three movements. The barbs of those rhythmic spears are sharp and relentless. The battle grinds for a nearly breathless seven minutes, before slipping down into a mystical suspension of time. Over an ethereal bed of string harmonies, a pair of clarinets and a bassoon spin a yarn that brings us back to the gloom and mystery of the first movement. Will the symphony fade away into this enchanted void?
Many later 20th century conductors of the piece certainly thought that it should be so. In keeping with the dark tint of the finale so far, they would have had the work end on a final note of tragedy, or at least beleagurement. Otto Klemperer even went so far as to write and record his own conclusion to the symphony to maintain this dour mood–seek it out and give it a listen.
But Mendelssohn composed the complete opposite: a victory hymn in the major key, marked Allegro maestoso. As if out of nowhere, the motto that began the symphony is recast in a jubilant A major, bringing the symphony to a triumphant conclusion. The symphony’s coda is said to have translated the ethos of a male choir into an orchestral score. Darkness is banished, and all of the symphony’s complexities wash away.
Admittedly, it can sound a bit like a symphonic non-sequitur, following more of a poetic than formal logic. To a true Romantic, such triumph was to be earned, not haphazardly plopped at the end of an otherwise dark movement. To a classicist, however, the rather intense darkness of the symphony warrants a counterbalance of positivity; in a musical world where every action elicits an equal and opposite reaction, this seems perfectly valid. Seen another way, the coda is simply a final outburst from the forces that ignited the symphonic drama in the first place.
Much depends upon the tempo at which the addendum is conducted. If it is conducted too broadly, it can feel bloated, even pompous. A zippier reading can add a touch of sweaty accomplishment, evoking the messy aftermath of a hard-fought victory rather than a showy victory lap. For what it’s worth, Tchaikovsky adopted the same approach half a century later in the finale of his Fifth Symphony.
Whether the celebration of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” is a satisfying ending or not, its might is undeniable. After William Wallace’s miraculous defeat of English in the Battle of Sterling, the Scots have enjoyed relatively few victories when it comes to war or politics. And yet, as Mendelssohn’s work attests, Scotland has been winning over the hearts and imaginations of citizens and visitors alike for centuries.
Arson Fahim (2023)
As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Life without music would be a mistake.” Music is an inextinguishable part of our lives, and for so many of us, living without it would be unimaginable. For Afghan citizens today, the notion of a world without music is not simply a bad dream, but a dire political reality. When they retook power in August 2021, the Taliban placed a total ban on music. Musical performance, and even owning instruments, was made illegal, with grave consequences for those who defied the law.
As a student in Kabul not so long ago, Arson Fahim was able to bask in artistic excellence of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. He went there to study piano and ended up taking up an interest in conducting and composing as well. Now the institute has been taken over by the Taliban, with pictures emerging of destroyed pianos and drums serving as symbols of the new regime’s violent targeting of musicians.
Fahim gained admission to Longy in Boston for the fall of 2020, but pandemic restrictions kept him from being able to enter the country. He was finally able to leave in early August 2021, weeks before the Taliban regained power and closed down the nation’s airports. Today’s performance would be impossible in the nation Fahim called home less than two years ago.
Although moving to America has afforded him the ability to follow his dream, the choice to study music abroad did not come lightly, especially after the events of August 2021. His family remains in Afghanistan, where his mother and sister’s lives and livelihoods have been put on hold by the Taliban’s laws restricting the role of women in public life. Given the travel limitations of his visa, not to mention the regime’s lethal threat to dissident musicians like him, Fahim has been unable to return home to see his family since he left.
The mixed emotions that came with his arrival to the US inform a deeply personal dimension of Insignificant Diaries, an orchestral piece inspired by the plight of refugees all around the world. In his program note for the piece, Fahim writes:
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people from war zones around the world are forced to leave behind their families and homes in pursuit of survival. They embark on long, perilous, and often deadly journeys to reach lands where they are promised the chance to live in peace. With teary eyes, they embrace their loved ones and kiss them goodbye, knowing all too well that this might be the very last time they ever get to do so – that at any moment, a bullet or a bomb can take the life of those they care most about. Even if they make it through the journey, they realize that the constant worry, the crushing grief, the hallowing guilt, and the overwhelming trauma will never truly allow them to be at peace – that their hearts will always remain back home, shattered, and that they could never be more than a stranger in this unfamiliar place. Insignificant Diaries is inspired by the untold stories of refugees, and my experience of being an Afghan musician in exile.
The piece begins with a lonely duet between a solo oboe and cello. The tone is somber as the cold melody aches along, accompanied by the cello’s indifferent ascent. A sense of distance and loss is palpable, and a string choir swells in an empathetic response. Solo wind instruments sing out a different song, each story unique, but following similar contours.
Soon, the mood shifts to one of anticipation, as the strings swing along rhythmically as they build in excitement. New vistas emerge, less cold and harsh than before, filled with promise. A sense of arrival seems at last possible.
After a dramatic pause, it becomes clear that we have arrived, overwhelmed at the journey’s end with the power of the full brass section barreling towards us. It’s grand and imposing, almost Baroque and otherworldly. But rather than being greeted by the green pastures of some promised land or some celestial light at the end of the tunnel, we are nagged by customs officers and immigration officials, represented fittingly by a bureaucratic bassoon.
A clarinet joins in and soon the whole thing starts grinding away, like cogs in some complex timepiece. The dance has an ungainly but infectious swing to it as it transforms into something entirely different: an alluring dance in 7/8 time, a popular time signature for Afghan folk music. As the complexities of life in an unfamiliar country begin to take shape, memory drifts to the music and comforts of home, and nostalgia sets in. The violins sing full-throated in a low register, ornamenting their sinuous lines with mesmerizing flourishes.
The dance begins to distort like a dream turning nightmarish. Unison lines cascade ominously through the orchestra, threatening any comfort that may have been achieved moments ago. As the tempo accelerates, things begin to get truly out of control, and the orchestra builds to a full climax on a triple forte note blared over a maelstrom of percussion.
After the dust begins to settle, the loneliness of the opening returns, but this time with a melody reminiscent of the dance. The broad tempo allows the listener a moment to reflect, to remember what and who has been left behind. The crushing grief and harrowing guilt Fahim mentions in his note are at their most powerful here. But life must go on, and agitated rhythms jolt us back to the present.
Fahim closes the piece by returning to the opening section–opportunities abound, but the loneliness and sense of isolation remains. The journey was perilous, but in so many ways, life in an unfamiliar place, disconnected from family, community, and culture presents a different but just as real set of hardships.
In Insignificant Diaries, Fahim seeks to give voice to the countless others who have faced great danger in their path towards freedom and opportunity as refugees. The songs of so many migrants who subject themselves to unimaginable dangers in the pursuit of safety and freedom remain unsung. With this piece, Fahim shares a part of his story, and invites us to consider the stories of those whose paths have led them far from home in hopes of safety.
Keeping in mind the home, family, and community he left in Afghanistan when he boarded the plane two years ago, Fahim sees his work in composition not only as an opportunity, but as a responsibility: a responsibility to continue making music in the face of the Taliban’s oppressive policies, and to keep bringing the work of Afghan composers in exile to audiences around the world. Performances celebrating Afghan music-making are continuing to flourish around the world, thanks in large part to outspoken advocates like Fahim.
It will certainly not happen overnight, but the revolutionary music the Taliban is so intent to repress may just lend a hand in raising awareness about the plight of Afghan citizens around the world, and sow the seeds of political change, distant as that may seem.
As he explained while describing music’s power as a force for social change, we are bombarded each day with the news of new threats to humanity and the vastness of human suffering on the planet, but these facts do not always move us to action. It often takes emotion to make a lasting impression on our hearts, and music can communicate pain in ways that words alone never will.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E Major (Sz. 119)
Béla Bartók 1945
Vége or “ending” is the word sketched at the close of Bartók’s unfinished final piano concerto. The marking was fitting for both the conclusion of the approximately 25-minute piece, as well as the Hungarian composer’s 64-year life. Before the final 17 measures could be composed, Bartók died of Leukemia, which had plagued his final years in America. He originally intended the concerto as a birthday present for his wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, for her to premiere as the soloist on her birthday on October 31, 1945. Bartók would leave the piece unfinished though, dying on September 26th, 1945, nearly a month before the piece was to be performed by the public. It would be left to his close friend, Tibor Serly, to finish off those final measures.
Bartók had gained a reputation early in his career by synthesizing two seemingly incompatible twentieth century approaches to composition: the modernist impulse towards abstract pitch relationships and the populist impulse towards national authenticity, achieved by rooting compositions in the folk music he gathered from trips around the villages of his native Hungary. He was equally influenced by the radical atonality and pseudo-mathematical approach of Schoenberg and the Third Viennese school’s musical laboratories as he was by the crucial role folk music could play in building community and culture. His unique blend created an instantly recognizable folk tunefulness and vigor, while at the same time couching them in thorny layers of dissonance and motivic process. His six string quartets in particular exemplify his stylistic development and are revered both by music theory academics and concertgoers alike, a rarity among twentieth century compositions.
For those familiar with his earlier style, this concerto might seem like it was composed by a different composer entirely. Bartók had left Hungary as an emigre to America in the last decade of his life, following the outbreak of WWII in Europe. Although he struggled to gain popularity in America, his fortunes improved and despite his growing illness, his compositions started to take on a lighter, almost springy disposition in contrast to his gnarled and raw earlier work. For whatever reason, he became interested in increasingly transparent textures and even indulged in a neoclassical style, which harkened back self-consciously to the pre-Romantic past. For many composers in the early twentieth century, the uncertainty and chaos of war brought about a renewed interest in music that was considered innocent and untarnished by the Germanic musical ideologies that could not be entirely separated from the rise of fascism that followed. Indeed, the concerto is nearly angst free, though it is certainly not without its dissonances or complexities.
The first movement begins with an open canvas; we lie back and look up at a vast sky with fast moving clouds of different shapes and textures. Nothing remains constant for very long in this mercurial movement. Within the first two measures, the piano shifts through a handful of recognizable but fleeting modal moods, sewing an unstable but not-quite-dissonant musical fabric some have dubbed “polymodal chromaticism,” a term perhaps best understood as a complex recipe drawn from a concentration of what on their own would be simple ingredients. The major key mood is exemplary of the thinned-out harmonic texture he had sought in the last decade of his career. The melody has roots in Hungarian folk melody, though not as emphatically as in Bartók’s earlier work. The texture remains light and the atmosphere broad as the piano swirls atmospherically into the dreamy second theme. In the movement’s middle, storm clouds begin to build, and the static electricity courses through trills in the strings and woodwinds as muted horns thrust stentorian queries up into the sky. The rising momentum is sequestered within the hushed frenzy of the strings as the piano skates with octaves over the rest of the orchestra trapped under sheets of ice. Although it’s the first movement, the Allegretto almost comes off as the scherzo of the concerto, painting more of a surface texture to swim in than a narrative to follow. The movement ends with an excited whisper; the layers gently unravel one by one as woodwinds and piano trade off falling thirds off into the distance.
The Adagio religioso is the soulful centerpiece of the concerto. Beginning with a dream-like dirge in the strings, the piano enters playing a chorale figure in emulation of the third movement of Beethoven’s 15th String Quartet. The chorale is not only reminiscent of Beethoven’s deep expression of gratitude in that quartet, but there may have been an extra-musical association at play as well. Beethoven marked the chorale in his quartet “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen,” (Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode). Given his battle with Leukemia, which was in the process of claiming his life as he wrote the piece, Bartók may well have been alluding to his own medical condition in this movement. Whether or not that was his intention, audiences have come to hear this movement as a hymn to the composer’s long battle with ill health towards the end of his life.
In contrast to the dreamy first movement, the Adagio religioso is serious from start to finish, with searing dissonances leading to only more yearning harmonies and open-ended resolutions. Whether you hear the movement as autobiographical or something far more abstract, the passion and laser focus are unavoidable. At the movement’s open center lies a passage of Bartók’s trademark night music where the cadence of warbling birds and humming insects takes over the expressive realm of human activity and emotion. Whereas many nineteenth century composers depicted nature as idyllic and tranquil, Bartók’s evocation of the natural world is far more chaotic and unpredictable. The mood is not quite threatening, but neither is it soothing.
Amidst the deep mortal subjectivity of the chorale, the objective indifference of the night music reminds us that the world continues on, with or without our involvement. As the chorale returns, the stakes are raised and the tension ratchets up to an almost unbearable level. Finally, the climactic axe blow of the tam tam brings a definitive end to the dissonant swelling, and the piano is left reeling in pain in its attempt to process what has just occurred. The movement fades away with a quiet denouement that quickly cues up the finale.
In an immediate shift of mood, the Allegro vivace is a jaunty ode to the vibrancy of existence. The madcap dance has an almost jig-like quality as it barrels forward in ungainly hemiolas that burst with energy from the seams of their rhythmic confines. The joy de vivre is unmistakable; after staring death in the face, what else can we do but celebrate life? Whereas the first movement was hazy and dream-like, the finale gyrates and sweats as it smiles. Amidst the earthy and jovial atmosphere, there are curious throwbacks to a bygone era of courtly grandeur in the central fugato section. In response to the existential soul-searching of the previous movement, the neoclassical frivolity in this one seems to broaden the perspective by showing us half-remembered dance moves of a time long ago, as if to take comfort in the notion that we share more with our ancestors than we may at first recognize.
For a finale that revels so vigorously in the here and now, it is still haunted by ghosts of music’s past in its central passage. How fitting for Bartók that as he composed this concerto in his final weeks, the boundary between past and present becomes fluid. Perhaps even more appositely, he never got the last word after all, since all he left of the final seventeen measures is a timpani roll and some piano parts. It would take his friend Tabor Serly to carry this piece into the future. Vége was at last achieved.