Program Notes--Julian Killough-Miller

Jump to Notes on the Individual Pieces:

I. “Jubilee,” from Symphonic Sketches                        George Whitefield Chadwick (1895-1904)

 

Oftentimes, it is assumed that the first generation of American composers was that of Charles Ives, followed by international legends like George Gershwin, William Grant Still, and Aaron Copland. However, an oft-overlooked generation of late 19th century Americans turned New England (and especially Boston) into the North American capital of the musical establishment. This cadre of composers, known as the the Second New England School or the “Boston Six,” set the agenda for an American style of composition that on the one hand legitimized its output by entrenching itself safely within the framework of the 19th century German establishment, and on the other hand laid the foundation for a bold, experimental, and uniquely American idiom of musical expression and construction.

 

Born to an enterprising insurance family in Lowell, MA, George Whitefield Chadwick followed his dream to become a musician, dropped out of high school, and paid his own way through New England Conservatory. He later traveled to Leipzig to gain some European compositional bona fides, and as a result, produced a body of early string quartets, symphonies, and overtures that emulated the formal procedures and motivic language of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Beethoven. In his second period, of which the Symphonic Sketches were a product, he dabbled with more programmatic material, evoking an idiosyncratic sense of narrative, almost cinematic development, in contrast to the studied formalism of his earlier works.

 

In many ways, his works of this period borrow a sense of “Americanness” from the same folk vocabulary that instigator and unlikely Godfather of American music, Antonin Dvorak did, particularly in his “New World” Symphony and the “American” String Quartet. To put it in Chadwick’s own words, “I determined to make it American in style—as I understood the term.” It seems clear his understanding of the term was highly influenced by that of his Czech predecessor. Full-throated pentatonic melodies imbue a certain earthiness, and the pictorial nature of the orchestration paint pictures of everyday life and relatable experiences, rather than the more abstract stylings typical 19th century romanticism. The piece’s unadorned realism in its depiction of down-to-earth life seems to anticipate the “slice of life” scenes put forth by Charles Ives, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland in the decades that followed.

 

Chadwick composed the Symphonic Sketches as a four-movement set between 1895-1904, though the “Jubilee” movement was one of the first to be composed in 1895. For each movement (I. Jubilee, II. Noël, III. Hobgoblin, IV. A Vagrom Ballad), he included a descriptive poem that he wrote himself. While the finale depicted the lives of vagrants on the railroads around Springfield, MA and the second movement evokes the atmosphere of the Christmas Carol “Silent Night,” the opening movement recalls the joyous National Peace Jubilee of 1869, in which nearly 11,000 instrumentalists and singers gathered in Boston to commemorate the end of the Civil War. Recalling what has been referred to as, “the high-water mark in the influence of the band in American life,” Chadwick fills his eight-minute musical celebration with brassy bombast and splashy cymbals. His poetic inscription calls for unabashed joy in unambiguous terms:

 

No cool gray tones for me!

Give me the warmest red and green,

A cornet and a tambourine,

To paint my Jubilee!

 

For when pale flutes and oboes play,

To sadness I become a prey;

Give me the violets and the May,

But no gray skies for me.

 

“Jubilee” begins with a boisterous march, evoking the band music that dominated the 1869 event. The music moves along mercurially, never staying in one melody or mood for too long, like fast moving clouds passing through on a sunny summer day. Syncopated rhythms and occasional “blue” notes hint at ragtime and early jazz. Following a transitional horn call that seems to presage the ambiance of later Western film scores, the second theme is a lyrical gem of pristine pentatonicism that simply begs to be whistled soulfully upon first hearing. The violins, horn, flutes, and clarinets take turns singing the simple yet beautiful tune. The orchestration is varied and colorful, revealing Chadwick’s familiarity with the technique of the European masters while at the same time bursting forth with a vivacious originality. A section in a complex triple time follows, perhaps a nod to one of Dvorak’s favorite rhythmic tics. The English horn plays a prominent role in creating a sense of wistfulness; its role in the second movement will be even more prominent. The harmonies in the slower reflective sections are deceptively adventurous, sounding a bit like the stylings of the French Impressionists. After a halting 6/4 chord, the traditional threshold in concertos for the beginning of a cadenza, Chadwick brings back the most nostalgic version yet of the reflective slow music, seemingly indicating that this movement that began so uproariously will end in a more intimate moment of repose. The transcendent serenity can only last so long, as the braying horns usurp the spotlight in the end and claim the last word.

Pezzo Capriccioso for Cello and Orchestra (Op. 62)                  Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1887)

 

Tchaikovsky’s body of work, while continually adored by audiences, still receives a critical eye roll from the musical intelligentsia. His symphonies are often dismissed for their hysterical emotionalism, his ballets for their all-too-accessible melodies. Tchaikovsky was a unique composer among his 19th century peers in many regards: he excelled at writing both operas and symphonies; he preferred Mozart’s melodic effortlessness of Beethoven’s motivic obstacle courses; he wrote characterful and craftsman-like ballets alongside excruciatingly personal symphonies. That he could at once be maudlin in his emotionalism and trite in his tone-painting highlights the scintillating tension that fuels so much of Tchaikovsky’s catalog. His confessional side and his flair for showmanship are both on display in this short explosion of a piece for cello and orchestra.

 

The composer penned the short piece for cello and orchestra during an otherwise infertile period of 1887. He wrote to his publisher, reluctantly, “This piece is the single fruit of my musical spirit from the whole summer.” Tchaikovsky began work on the piece on a visit to his friend Nikolay Kondratyev in the German spa town of Aachen, who at the time was in the throes of a wretched illness that would soon claim his life. The composer was deeply saddened and somewhat traumatized by the sight of his dear friend in such an anguished state, and the melancholic tone of the Pezzo Capriccioso may well reflect his feelings.

 

The piece is “capricious” not in the sense of being frolicsome, but rather in the formal musical sense of shifting abruptly from section to section. The cello’s mournful cry launches the orchestra into its lugubrious refrain. Each time a painful dissonance is approached, the cello lingers, milking every possible moment of expressive intensity. As it sighs and moans, the solo carries itself with dignity, building strength and resolve with each impassioned utterance. Amid the despair, there are flashes of light and hope as the cello ends many phrases with playful flourishes before resuming its lamentations.

 

All of a sudden, the piece reveals the first of its capricious mood swings as the orchestra dances around the frantic fusillade of the cello’s moto perpetuo, or constant motion. With a rapid-fire series of spiccato scales, the cellist goes from wailing to shredding without any real transition. At one point, the cello whizzes about with reckless abandon, almost imitating a swarm of bees. The bout of intensity eventually comes to a halt, and the mournful slow section returns. This time, though, we know that the clouds are only a temporary condition—the pyrotechnics return for once last display in the piece’s final thirty seconds, ending on a stratospheric exclamation point from the cello at the top of its range.

 

 

Divided                                                                                                Jessie Montgomerey (2022)

 

Jessie Montgomery’s works have been in hot demand the past few years. As can be seen from provocative headlines such as the New York Times’ “The Changing American Canon Sounds Like Jessie Montgomery,” the 40-year-old composer has established herself as a prominent leader in the movement to revitalize the role of new classical compositions in an ever-changing American cultural landscape.

 

Growing up in the Lower East side of New York in the 1980s to an artistic family, she began composing as early as the age of 10, before eventually going to Julliard to study violin. She first became connected with the Sphinx Organization in Detroit in 90s with their annual competition. Sphinx’s institutional focus on supporting young Black and Latinx string players has transformed the landscape of the American classical music scene, reinvigorating a genre often associated with the musical stylings of dead white (often European) men with a focus on inclusivity and grappling with the broader implications of American identity in classical music.

 

As an alumna and 2020 medal of excellence recipient, Montgomery has in many ways taken their mission to heart. Musically, she has focused on music for strings, particularly in chamber ensembles, which made her works feasible during the pandemic. Her riveting three-minute minimalist masterpiece Starburst was performed 114 times in 2021 alone. Her popularity soared, as more and more orchestras and audiences are enchanted by her fresh, improvisatory sound, accessible yet innovative scoring, and the relevance of her music’s topical material.

 

Thematically, many of her works explore the most challenging aspects of 21st century life and identity in America, and Divided is no exception. Written for solo cello and string orchestra, Divided was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization and premiered less than a month ago at Carnegie Hall on October 13 with Tommy Mesa as the soloist. On the composer’s website, she posted the following program note:

 

Divided for solo cello and orchestra is a response to the social and political unrest that has plagued our generation in the recent past. Specifically, the sense of helplessness that people seem to feel amidst a world of that seems to be in constant crisis, whether it is over racial injustice, sexual or religious discrimination, greed and poverty, or climate change.

 

In a world that is so fast-paced, where all of these desperate realities have been unveiled by the internet with constant visual bombardment to the human psyche, how do we regain control and find beauty among the chaos? How can we stack good actions over the negative reactions that easily emerge out of conflict? The cello is a voice crying out to be heard, in chorus with a few, passionate and unrelenting, with the orchestra performing a gritty accompaniment.

 

The piece opens with repeated strains of an anguished cry in the night from the solo cello, a sinking gesture that evokes a soul weighed down by the gravity of the present moment. In its most vulnerable expressive range, the cello heaves and gasps in futility, searching for some consolation and finding none. Soon, the high strings circle around the beleaguered soloist, swooping around in an effort to soothe, but the soloist’s agonizing isolation persists. Following the slow introduction, the frozen tension bursts forth into a stream of frenetic activity. The ensemble chugs along anxiously, picking up rhythmic strains, but never quite cohering into a comfortable groove. Sometimes, the surrounding choir of strings act like a Greek chorus, picking up on the cellist’s hysterical phrases and echoing them back. The communicative vortex evokes the unhealthy atmosphere of internet discourse, as Montgomery suggests in her program note, in which everybody is speaking and echoing each other frantically, but compassionate communication appears to be unattainable amidst the maelstrom. The surrounding strings seem to register the soloist’s pain, but then broadcast it outwards rather than responding to it.

 

The music tumbles forth, stuck in a cycle of agony that seems only to feed back on itself—the serpent eats its own tail. At one point towards the end, the cellist attacks the strings percussively in a sort of mental breakdown as the end of the rope has been reached and their pleas for help are increasingly ignored. The wailing returns in its most unbearable presentation yet as the soloist slides excruciatingly between the falling gesture from the opening. Suddenly, the strings land on a traditional dominant chord, and a brief and brutal cadenza emerges as the accompanying strings fall out. Montgomery’s observation of such a traditional concerto convention heightens the intensity of the rhetoric. They return to intone solemn three chord descent to what promises to be a conclusive return of the tonic key. But that final chord never arrives, and the cellist soars upward until they land on a shrieking dissonance. As the painful opening establishes, that relief is never meant to arrive. Rather than a musical argument that comes to a satisfying close, it’s as though the only way to stop the cacophonous dialogue is to suddenly turn away, to force a shut down, to disengage.

 

 

 

Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor (Op. 25)                                               Johannes Brahms (1861)

Orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg (1937)

 

Rock fans know well that sometimes, the cover ends up much better than the original. While some might enjoy Leonard Cohen’s gruff grumblings, Jeff Buckley elevated “Hallelujah” to a spiritual sonic experience. Bob Dylan laid down the rudimentary sketch, but when Jimi Hendrix substituted his wailing guitar for Dylan’s warbling harmonica, he truly brought the songwriter’s apocalyptic vision to life.

 

Perhaps a reorchestration isn’t an exact analogy to a cover song, but it’s a useful parallel. The composer’s original framework (the piece’s bones) is observed while the delivery (the piece’s apparel) is altered. When Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, he used a dynamic orchestral palette to bring the Russian composer’s blueprints to life. When Liszt published his piano transcriptions of popular repertoire, especially Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies, he flexed his virtuosic muscles in showing the orchestral range of the piano when operated by someone of his caliber. Arnold Schoenberg’s reasons for orchestrating Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor were somewhat different.

 

A year after the 1937 premiere of his orchestration in LA under the Baton of Otto Klemperer, Schoenberg listed his reasons for taking on the project somewhat pithily:

 

  1.  I like the piece

  2.  It is seldom played

  3.  It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.

 

Schoenberg, however, was not known for being pithy. With him, there was almost always a musico-political lecture lurking in the background. Beginning his career as a hyper-Romantic devotee of Wagner and his disciples, Schoenberg’s music began to take a decided turn towards modernism and inscrutability at the turn of the century. Known primarily as the composer who single-handedly rendered tonality (and, some would say, the notion was meant to be listened to and enjoyed) obsolete, Schoenberg’s compositions became increasingly distant from any recognizable tonal framework. His departure culminated in the twenty-minute monodrama, Erwartung, which depicted a woman’s descent into madness after murdering her husband and which contained no recurring thematic material.

 

Having reached a point of no return in terms of musical chaos, Schoenberg decided that such freedom was a dangerous thing, so he developed a discipline known as docedacophony, or twelve-tone music, where the “melodic” line must exhaust every one of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale before using another one. The logic of this system went against the grain of the tonal system listeners had grown accustomed to over the preceding three centuries. Even to this day, the style has not been entirely popular with listeners, perhaps outside of the scores for old-school horror films. The style became extremely popular, however, with composers.

 

Schoenberg did not only write music in the dodecaphonic style he had created, but he also insisted that it was the only logical direction for music to take. For one reason or another, droves of composers listened to demands, perhaps fearing obsolescence, or perhaps finding inspiration in his revolutionary approach. To establish himself as the legitimate heir to his German predecessors, he needed to find anticipations of his own style in their music, since for the most part, they weren’t alive to give their blessings (the ones who were alive tended to reject his music and theories). Which brings us to Brahms.

 

To be sure, Schoenberg inherited his revolutionary ethos and his philosophical grandiloquence from Wagner. In terms of his motivic technique, however, he was deeply indebted to Brahms. In his 1947 talk, “Brahms the Progressive,” the modernist made the case that his technique of “developing variation” was entirely with precedent in Brahms’ instrumental works, including the Piano Quartet in G minor. As Brahms scholar Walter Frisch put it, “More than any other composer Brahms demonstrated how music can be logical - how one idea can grow inexorably from another - and yet continually fresh and stimulating.” Indeed, more than any other of Brahms’ early works the first movement of the Piano Quartet seems to be a masterclass in developing variation, where short, motivic phrases are developed constantly from the point of their first appearance, rather than exclusively in the development section. Few melodies are stable as they shift by the moment in an ever-changing tectonic landscape. The opening melody even sounds as if it could be a tone row with its indeterminate character, which must have delighted Schoenberg.

 

What is remarkable about Schoenberg’s orchestration is its fidelity to the original source material. He changes nary a note, only leaving his mark with the orchestration. The range of orchestral instruments he uses, however, is extravagant; a xylophone and battery of percussion turn the finale into a smorgasbord of orchestral colors. Even in the more understated first movement, the shrieking woodwinds and the sultry bass clarinet of Schoenberg’s orchestration are alluringly grotesque. Despite its fidelity to the original score of the quartet, they sound like two completely different pieces at times. To that effect, Klemperer said of the premiere, “You can’t even hear the original quartet, so beautiful is the arrangement.”

 

Despite the kindred spirit the two composers may have shared in terms of their motivic process, their demeanor could not have been more opposite. Brahms’ style was introverted, subtly daring rather than brash and confrontational. From his earliest pieces, Schoenberg chose the most scandalous X-rated texts to set; he was a magnet for controversy, a purveyor of musical shocks. The soft-spoken melancholy of Brahms’ original quartet is completely lost in Schoenberg’s attention-grabbing tour de force or orchestral bombast, and that’s what makes Schoenberg’s version so thoroughly compelling. To hear a composer’s individual personality so brightly and unmistakably imprinted on another composer’s canvas is a rare thing, and one worth celebrating.

 

The opening movement begins with a sinuous melody that seems like a thought that trails off mid-sentence, bringing the speaker into a series of internal tangents and reminiscences before it is ever fully uttered; in other words, pure Brahms. Before long, a carnivalesque climax emerges out of nowhere, pitting the opening melody against a churning army of shrieking woodwinds and hysterical strings spitting out sporadic strings of sixteenth notes. Shunning standard sonata form procedure of having two themes in the exposition (much to Clara Schumann’s chagrin, as she let Brahms know in a critical letter after he sent her a draft), Brahms treats us to no less than five distinct themes in a variety of key areas. Indeed, Brahms is using form as a springboard for motivic development rather than a framework to make his framework legible to the listener. As one writer put it an essay about Brahms’ chamber music, “Thus, Brahms’ chamber music, including his three piano quartets, was meant to be difficult music that could be fully enjoyed only through proper education, even though Brahms might have inadvertently included sufficient popular elements in it so that it was at least partially comprehensible to most ‘naïve’ audience of his time.” One can see how Schoenberg would have found a kindred spirit in Brahms. The climax of the first movement takes on a frightening, almost apocalyptic character in Schoenberg’s orchestration when the main theme returns in the recapitulation. The cymbal crashes and galumphing horns add a sinister quality to the stately original.

 

The second movement is the first of Brahms’ intermezzo middle movements in a departure from the traditional scherzo which he would continue to exploit in many of his later works. The melody feels like a natural outgrowth of the first movement, though with a lighter touch. A darkness pervades the nimble stream of string figurations, like a crocodile slithering silently amidst the river’s reeds. Schoenberg’s arrangement is much more subdued than in the last movement, still showcasing different instrument groups in a kaleidoscope of orchestral color. Here, the threatening mood of the first movement presents itself in dance form. The middle section swirls along elegantly, only to be struck down by the dissonant authority of the brass section before the opening material returns.

 

The Andante introduces sunlight to the darkly tinted lens of the previous two movements. Unabated lyricism takes center stage, though the emotional register of the melody is as ambivalent as ever with Brahms. In response to a question about an ominous timpani roll in the first minutes of his otherwise sunny Second Symphony, Brahms replied, “I have to confess that I am a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us…” Even in the quartet’s section of repose, lugubriousness never totally fades away. In Schoenberg’s arrangement, the stridency of the violin melody seems at odds with the occasionally agitated winds and the wobbly brass. The instability of major key serenity is truly in keeping with the rest of the quartet. The movement ends fittingly with the “Hollywood” cadence, where a plaintive minor chord yields to the major home key, almost always a marker of unexorcized demons in an otherwise happy ending.

 

And then there’s the finale—Schoenberg really makes a meal of this one. Brahms’ original movement already pulled out all the stops in a virtuosic “gypsy” dance extravaganza. Subtitled “Rondo alla Zingarese,” the movement’s themes are actually derived from Hungarian folk music, which Brahms conflated with gypsy music, a common German misattribution in his day, and certainly not the deeply informed approach to appropriating folk music that would become the concern of 20th century Eastern European composers like Bartók and Janáček. The Rondo form allows Brahms to treat the original theme to a set of flashy variations, perhaps the most difficult to play in the composer’s chamber output. Schoenberg, always one for one-upmanship, takes the flamboyant antics to a whole new level. If the first three movements are orchestrated in a somewhat provocative manner, this one is utterly bombastic. The theme is first presented with relative fidelity to the original to establish itself simply without bells and whistles. But once the xylophone comes in with a flurry of sixteenth notes and a tambourine rattles out rude interruptions, we can imagine that even Schoenberg himself cracked a devilish grin as he penned these bars. The timpani and the low brass thunder along before a balletic passage for flute acrobatics, accentuated by triangle. Before long, even the dreamy glockenspiel gets to join the fun. Snarling trombones blow raspberries from the sidelines as the original character of the dance is transformed into a hulking orchestral rendition of Frankenstein’s monster: spare parts from twentieth century orchestral technique are smashed together with technological devilry to resurrected a long departed soul from a bygone era. Tasteful? Perhaps not. But devilishly good fun? Undeniably. And given Brahms’ wry wit, one has to imagine that if he were alive to hear it, he’d chuckle and join the dance.