Program Notes--Julian Killough-Miller
Jump to Notes on the Individual Pieces:
Prelude to an Afternoon with a Faun (L. 86) Claude Debussy (1894)
To call Debussy a musical revolutionary might seem peculiar to many. He didn’t communicate through manifestos, he never developed a new system for musical expression with iron-clad rules, and he never adopted the larger-than-life-status of a modernist provocateur like Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, or Pierre Boulez. And yet, the cantankerous Boulez himself wasn’t being sarcastic when he remarked that with Debussy’s Prelude, “The flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.” How could the ever-recalcitrant Boulez—whose musical asceticism reached a nearly comical acme in the 1950s with the hyper-academic development of total serialism—identify a piece that was so popular and, well, pleasurable as the origin point of the modernist insurgency?
Sure, Debussy’s melodies were sinuous and mesmerizing in a way that no one had ever attempted before. His orchestrations were etched with the precision and detail of a Da Vinci fresco. And of course, his harmonies always drew us in rather than punishing us with the violence of nails on a chalkboard. But above all, it was the sheer sensuousness of his music, its ability to envelop the listener in a luxurious sonic bath that reinvigorated the terminal trajectory of European music at the end of the nineteenth century and blazed a viable path into the twentieth. Nowhere else can all of Debussy’s most luminous qualities be found with such novelty or clarity as in his ten-minute rendering of Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist poem, “L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune.”
The poem depicts a scene from antiquity in which a lusty faun wakes up, sweaty from a midsummer nap, and attempts to seduce some nymphs that pass by. His attempts are unsuccessful, so he goes back to napping, for only in dreams can his fantasies be fulfilled.
What made the poem stand out was its evocation of mood, and dreamlike potency rather than its narrative. The lines between desire and fulfillment, consciousness and dreaming, fantasy and reality are not so much blurred as they are elevated into an imperceptible dimension. As a movement, symbolism harnessed the rich associative power of images and signs to find the deeper subconscious (albeit irrational) truth of dream logic, rather than realism’s self-evident truth, naturalism’s universal truth, classicism’s mathematical truth, or romanticism’s emotional truth. In his musical realization of the poem, Debussy played up the languorous atmosphere, but didn’t seek to evoke much literalism or narrative by way of tone painting. This is the quintessential mood piece. He did, however, stay faithful to the proportions of the poem, penning 110 measures to house the poem’s 110 lines. What may come off as improvisatory was in fact precisely calibrated.
At first, Mallarmé was upset to learn that the composer had appropriated his work for musical portrayal, objecting that his poem contained sufficient music in its own right. After attending the premiere, however, he had a change of heart, as he gushed in an admiring letter to the composer:
I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the
Afternoon of a Faun, which presents no dissonance with my text, but goes much further, really,
into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand
admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé.
The premiere delighted its audience as well, and the piece was encored, but it took some time for other composers to latch on to its technique and for its influence on music to fully take effect. Eighteen years later, the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky would choreograph a ballet based on the work, that depicted the piece’s eroticism (and the faun’s concupiscence) quite graphically, causing a scandal across Paris and adding a layer of controversy to a work that had previously been widely accepted.
Returning to the piece itself, we encounter a soundworld of delicacy, tenderness, yearning, ennui and (as Mallarmé noted) nostalgia, alongside the prevailing subtext of desire. Debussy’s faun was no mere horny goat. There are moments of sheer, unadulterated beauty. There are moments of mystery. There are moments that seem to build to a transcendent climax, but then wash away like a wave that dissipates before reaching shore. There are moments of stillness and tranquility, mere breaths away from moments of uncontrollable excitement.
The opening bars are some of the most distinctive in all classical music. A solo flute slithers down a tritone, only to climb right back up. In a handful of bars, the composer has rendered the tonal dichotomy of major and minor largely irrelevant. The strums of the harp raise the curtain on the sensual scene, while the gently dissonant wind harmonies evoke the somnolescent haze of the faun waking up from his midsummer nap. Unlike the Tristan prelude, which used a similar chord to evoke a sense of unbearable yearning, this tension doesn’t beg to be broken; we are comfortable entering into the faun’s physic world and its unfulfilled desires. Debussy welcomes us in by casting a spell, not by ratcheting up the tension until it is unbearable.
After a few repetitions, the flute melody gains momentum in fits and starts before yielding to a new section where different woodwind voices take turns gyrating over a base of palpitating cellos and percussive spikes from the harp. Strings shimmer, horns swell, and woodwinds surge. About halfway through the piece, the unison strings take on the fullest form of a central melody thus far, and it seems as though a point of arrival may come soon. But just as the wave seems to crest, it washes away again. A lonely violin plunges us back into a sort of development section, where various strains of melody float along gently downstream. Before long, we begin to zoom out to the cascade of horn harmonies. And with the gentle Pavlovian “ding” of the small antique cymbals, the faun abandons the unrequited longing of the waking world and returns to pleasure of his reveries.
Violin Concerto in D Major (Op. 61) Ludwig Van Beethoven (1806)
Especially in the mid-twentieth century, Beethoven became an Old Testament deity against whom any modernist torch-bearer ought to rebel. As you can see from a trip to Boston’s Symphony Hall, the mere invocation of his name had come to (and still does) stand in for unsurpassable greatness, as seen through the eyes of the musical establishment. And yet, although his nearly mythological status as music’s mostly deaf prophet has come into question, his music remains some of the most widely admired and listened to of any composer in the Classical music canon. Part of what makes his music so enduringly compelling is its electrifying marriage between the elegant geometry of the norm-oriented Classical style with the boisterous individualism and revolutionary fervor with which Beethoven launched the Romantic style. Much of his music manages to be legible and proportional while it thrills and surprises the listener at nearly every turn.
By no means was his Violin Concerto in D Major his most ostensibly revolutionary piece. It lacks the dramatic heroism of the Eroica, the mysticism of the Grosse Fugue, the pictorialism of the Pastoral. Its innovation lies in its “less is more” approach to violin virtuosity and its fusion of the genre with the organic logic and cohesion of the symphony. Before his violin concerto, the form was mostly a vessel for star violinists to dazzle audiences with a barrage of pyrotechnics and feats of wonder. Make no mistake, Beethoven’s concerto still challenges violinists to this day. The challenge, however, does not come off as flashy when met by a deft soloist. This aspect of the piece is perhaps what contemporary audiences and critics found most unsatisfying about the 1806 premiere.
The piece was dedicated to and written for four-string wunderkind Franz Clement, who premiered his own violin concerto alongside Beethoven’s Eroica. A veritable star, the audience expected a violinistic feast with Beethoven’s entry; what they got instead was a smorgasbord of delectable orchestral textures highlighting the woodwinds and timpani alongside the modest centerpiece of the solo violin. Furthermore, Beethoven was so late in delivering the manuscript to the orchestra and Clement that they only had one rehearsal together. Legend has it that Clement had to sight-read the part during the first performance, but this has been debunked. Still, given how integral the orchestra is in sharing thematic duties with the violin, an under rehearsed debut would hardly create the musical effect Beethoven desired.
Beyond that, Clement did not even play a full thematic melody himself until the final bars of the first movement! Rather than presenting melodies, the soloist embroiders and embellishes. The violin’s outbursts sound almost improvisatory, often a reaction to the music rather than the thing itself. Perhaps to address this lack of attention to himself, the prodigy famously played a dazzling fanfare on one string on an upside-down violin (as it was advertised on flyers for the concert). This shameless showmanship was far more common in his day than it is now, as concert life wasn’t as solemn and ossified as it is today. Still, the concerto didn’t quite hit the mark with its audience, and it had to wait until 1844 until its revival by violinist Joseph Joachim and conductor Felix Mendelssohn to gain acceptance, decades after Beethoven’s death. Today, Beethoven’s one and only concerto for the violin holds pride of place as the first entry to the pantheon of so-called Great Violin Concertos (which also includes entries by Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius).
Part of what may have turned off audiences at the premiere was the concerto’s unprecedented length. The opening movement alone can take anywhere between 20 and 25 minutes, which is long even by today’s standards. A local publication, the Weiner Theaterzeitung, wrote the day following the premiere that in response to the piece, “The judgment of the connoisseurs is unanimous; they allow that it has certain passages of beauty, but find that its construction is disjointed and that the endless repetition of certain commonplaces might easily become wearisome.” Most critics today would find that the construction is anything but disjointed, but the repetition of large thematic sections can lead to an undifferentiated monolith of a movement if the violinist fails to cordially invite us into the intimacy of their world.
The seriousness of the piece is evident from its striking opening gesture: a four-pronged knock by the timpani. Rather than an intro to the wind theme that follows, this motif will become the governing idea of the entire 20+ minute movement. The wind melodies flow effortlessly, in sharp contrast to the effortful timpani and string themes. This dynamic tension between rhythmic purpose with melodic grace and beauty will fuel much of the movement’s drama. The orchestra works its way through a full three-minute exposition before the violin ascends on a perilous staircase of delicate octaves: quite the entrance indeed! Stunning in its elegance rather than its power, the violin’s opening gambit introduces us to its complex character: genteel yet passionate, seductive yet stormy, sensitive yet commanding.
Rather than intoning any of the major themes, the soloist dances around them. The flavor is subtle, a nuanced approach we are often not used to hearing from a composer whose work is known primarily for establishing a motive by bashing you over the head with it. There’s still some head-bashing to be found here, though it is relegated to a few exhilarating moments. The movement is at its most turbulent (and perhaps Beethovenian) when the knocking motif of four repeated notes threatens from below the serenity of the soaring violin above. When the brass, timpani, and determined strings unleash their thunder, the soloist rises to the occasion, tensing her muscles while still maintaining perfect posture.
The lengthy development ends with one of the most affecting passages in the whole piece. A sudden turn to G minor summons a languid cloud that immobilizes the entire orchestra into a melancholic stupor. Like the dog days of summer, all we can do is pant and fan ourselves to keep from falling asleep. The soloist wails like never before in this movement. Whereas she maintained the utmost composure throughout the trials and tribulations of the first dozen minutes, the armor unravels, and we see the violinist in a moment of the utmost intimacy and vulnerability in what seems like an aside to the audience while the rest of the orchestra slumbers. Her prayers are soon answered. She turns her engine back into gear with a fierce but ungainly series of ascending arpeggios that musical commentator and host of Sticky Notes Joshua Weilerstein likens to the sound of a car sputtering in traction.
The recapitulation returns in full orchestral splendor, dispelling any of the dark clouds that condensed over the course of the development. And then comes the cadenza, which Beethoven himself did not write until the later piano version. While in Clement’s day, cadenzas were customarily improvised by the soloist, dozens of composers (one catalog contains 54) have since contributed their own editions. The options include two of the most commonly used by Joachim (a more motivic approach) and Fritz Kreisler (a more lyric approach) as well as more diverse composers ranging from Camille Saint-Saëns to Alfred Schnittke. The present performance features Kreisler’s cadenzas.
The cadenza yields to a subdued coda, where the soloist finally gets to boast the second theme, uninterrupted by orchestral forces. All is peace, and the movement seems to signal that it will leave on a note of lullaby-level serenity. Before long, the orchestra remobilizes, and the soloist races ahead towards an explosive ending, punctuated by two triumphant chords from the orchestra, trying to keep pace with the soloist’s breathless acceleration.
The Larghetto second movement opens with a prayer, this time from the string-driven orchestra. A choir of hushed harmonies etches a halo around the supplicative sighs. The soloist emerges at the center, a heavenly figure. Dancing nimbly around the stratosphere, the violinist seems to move with a celestial freedom to which the earthbound orchestra can only aspire. At once exalted and carefree, the concerto’s centerpiece takes the form of theme and variations. The spiritual dimensions of Beethoven’s slow movements are rarely this untroubled; the movement’s soulfulness is blissful at nearly every corner. The only intrusion of Beethovenian violence comes as the movement seems to be so content as to drift off to sleep. In its final bars, the Larghetto changes gears with a stern orchestral declamation that leads to a sort of recitative for the soloist that pivots directly into the celebratory finale.
The sudden transition between the final two movements was a truly novel approach to the concerto and one that led to a greater sense of unity. This technique would be emulated by countless other composers in all types of pieces, but perhaps most notably by Mendelssohn when he fused the first and second movements of his violin concerto by recontextualizing the tonality of a single note from a solo bassoon.
This rondo finale is by far Beethoven’s most cheerful. Where in the second movement, the soloist’s dancing approaches sublime euphoria, the concerto’s final episode brings us back down to earth with a full-blooded romp. The vigor of the third movement never approaches the more threatening qualities of the first, but it provides enough tension to fuel its ten minutes of pure kinetic energy. The soloist should get paid overtime for this movement as there seems to be nary a measure without some explosion of violinistic splendor.
For once in this concerto, the soloist gets to present the theme first in all its joyous simplicity. The orchestra responds with a boisterous tutti that shakes off any of the cobwebs from the serene second movement. At one point, the melancholic theme from the opening movement comes back in an innovative recall that adds to the concerto’s symphonic cohesion and adds depth to the untroubled atmosphere. The end of the movement leaves no doubt that joy has triumphed, when after pointing to a contentedly subdued conclusion, the soloist takes one last gymnastic leap and lands with aplomb. The orchestra registers its approval with the hearty “Bravo!” of their final cadence.
Symphony No. 2 Alexander Borodin (1870-1)
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said:“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelly
The scene of Borodin’s symphonic sophomore release opens with a sweeping view of the symphony’s monolith: a motto theme bellowed in unison by the orchestra’s most titanic forces. Like the opening shot of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, its monumentality is unmistakable, its grandeur imposing to the mere mortals who witness it. The theme lies in an obstinately indeterminate space as a symphonic opener: not malleable enough to be a motive, yet too forceful and incomplete to be a melody. It’s packed to the brim with potential energy, but it remains inert upon each repetition as if cast in stone, like the unyielding visage of Shelly’s “Ozymandias.” Gradually, a lively countermelody promises to liven up the mood, mobilizing against the implacability of the motto. Effervescent string melodies and woodwind solos emerge organically like the sudden bloom following a rare desert rain. The development section showcases the collision of the melodic second theme group’s unstoppable force and the motto’s immovable object.
Borodin’s cinematic orchestration is inventive at every turn. Never before had string unisons pounded away with such terrifying force mere measures away from such radiant melodies entrusted to the very same instruments. Later, the arch-modernist Arnold Schoenberg praised Borodin’s colorful arrangements when he compared the composer to the much-lauded Russian symphonic colorist Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, saying that, “[Rimksy’s] scores sound thick next to the wonderfully articulated sounds and mixtures of the [Borodin Second].” Indeed, there’s something startlingly modern and direct about the insistence of the motto’s bombardment from beginning to end. There is no organic growth in the repetition of the motto theme throughout the movement, as there would be in a Beethoven or Schubert symphony; no synthesis is achieved between the two opposing forces. Borodin seems more interested in transporting us to the world of his symphonic soundscape with his scene setting rather than packaging his musical ideas into a neatly structured container. As we exit the scene, we are presented with the same idea as the opening frame, only louder, slower, and more colossal.
The scherzo opens with a sort of train horn sonority in the winds, which in one gesture imbues the zippy movement with its kinetic energy. Horns race along with absurdly fast repeated notes that serve as the foundation for the fleeting strains of the scherzo’s syncopated melodies. The trio takes on a triple meter and soars with an almost waltzlike elegance. Yet amidst the refined ballroom atmosphere, jazzy melodies churn in the lower register and harken back to the jagged harmonies of the first movement. While the first movement was ponderous and ungainly, the second prances about with balletic agility.
Just as the scherzo whisks us off our feet, the Andante lays us down to rest. The opening strums of the harp create a threshold through which we enter into a lush world of exquisite beauty. Compared to the sneering indifference of the first movement, the Andante nourishes and soothes. The darkly cast middle section complicates the unfettered atmosphere of the opening, reintroducing the threatening repeated note motif from the second movement and the muscle of the brass and low string unisons from the first. The passionate strains crescendo into an unabashed breakthrough of the uplifting music. The movement ends in a soulful reverie, with the symmetrical return of the trio of harp, horn, and clarinet from the opening bars. Borodin’s originality shimmers through every bar of the Andante, swelling with power and grace and leaving us wanting even more, which is quite an accomplishment for a Romantic era slow movement!
Without any pause, the Andante leads without pause to the bombastic triumphalism of the finale. Yet although the transition is sudden, it isn’t abrupt. The ending note of the horn melody is simply recontextualized into the harmony of the finale’s new key. The mood of Borodin’s finale could not be more Russian, replete with grandiose cymbal crashes, pentatonic fireworks, and the pert snap of a tambourine to boot. Another groundbreaking feature of the finale was the alternation between double and triple time, in an evocation of the odd-metered pulse of much Russian folk music. As the brass barrel through their stentorian tunes, lighter textures emerge, with woodwind and string melodies providing a wistful contrast. While the preceding three movements are haunted by looming shadows, the finale leaves no doubt in the listener’s mind that victory has been achieved. At last, the insistent repeating note motive works in concert with the celebratory atmosphere rather than against it. For a movement with so little tension, the excitement never lets up all the way through its dazzling final chord. What began with the hulking trudge of the opening motto ends with the tingly sparkle of the triangle exploding into the final chord.
While now we treasure Borodin’s Second Symphony as the most powerful and communicative of his orchestral works, his First Symphony was his most popular at the time. One wonders what Borodin could have achieved had he produced more works, but after all, composing wasn’t his day job. Moonlighting as a composer, he occupied his days as a chemist, practicing medicine for four years before opening the first Russian school for training women doctors. Noting the challenges of his typical schedule, he once remarked, "In winter I can only compose when I am too unwell to give my lectures. So never say to me, 'I hope you are well,' but 'I hope you are ill.'" While we are accustomed to hearing of Faustian composer types who sacrificed their lives for their art, Borodin managed to balance a career in the arts while thriving professionally elsewhere.
As an amateur Russian composer in the late 19th century, he was hardly alone. He was a key member of a Russian composer upstart collective called the Moguchaya Kuchka  , or Mighty Handful, which comprised Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui in addition to Borodin. As known simply as “The Five,” the composerly quintet sought to create a distinctly Russian national style at a time when Russian geopolitical ambitions were growing increasingly imperialist and composers all over Europe were providing the soundtrack for nationalist expansion. While today we often hear the products of nineteenth century musical nationalism as quaint folk traditions to be celebrated, they most often had political subtexts at the time of their creation, many rather sinister.
In the Russian case, much of the national output took on an “Eastern” or “Oriental” quality, with exotic modes, chromatic embellishments, impassive drones, and sensual melismatic contours. It’s no accident that many of the leading Russian works of the day were based explicitly on middle eastern subjects, such as Rimsky’s Scheherezade, Balakirev’s Islamey, and Borodin’s Aladdin and Prince Igor. But why? In part, Balakirev had promoted the style as a sonic marker to differentiate Russian music from the more academic, “universalist” style of Western European (i.e. German) music. This emphasized the otherness of Russian musical output, and in doing so was an effective marketing ploy for western audiences.
But at the same time, it created a dichotomy whereby the purposeful and sympathetic Russian themes could conquer and subdue the encroaching oriental melodies, as the late musicologist of Russian music Richard Taruskin pointed out. Within the context of the mid-century war over colonizing Central Asia (which Borodin heartily supported, along with the other members of the Mighty Handful), these innocuous sounding Eastern stylings can take on a more troubling valence. In Borodin’s Second Symphony, the East is not cast as seductive, but rather as antiquated and implacable, like the grand old ruins of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” The motto's monolith is fearsome, but outdated, something that can be overcome with the earnest rectitude of the Russian forces.
While the political interpretation is not the only one available, and certainly shouldn’t overwhelm the sonic qualities of the work, it’s important to remember that the hands of self-appointed nationalist composers are not entirely unblemished by the blood of political nationalism’s misdeeds. Works are not written in a vacuum, after all. Especially in the late nineteenth century, the goals of the expansionist state and the goals of nationalist composers often went hand in hand; the projects of political and cultural hegemony are not the same thing, but they are closely linked. Culture can serve to subvert authority and protest against abuses of power, but it can just as well achieve the opposite.