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Signature Concert 3: Solemn, Joyful & Ecstatic
February 5 @ 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm
This concert is also available for Livestream on February 5th.
Slip into our mid-winter concert to resonate with Oskar Morawetz’s powerful Memorial to Martin Luther King and the quiet solemnity of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, composed in 1936 as a reflection of the changes occurring in America and Europe. Counterpoints include Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s joyful Serenade for Strings, Igor Stravinsky’s vibrant Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and Joan Tower’s ecstatic Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.
At the Lincoln Center
417 West Magnolia St.
Fort Collins, CO 80521
Access your Digital Program
Or text “Cello” to 970-292-6559
- Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman no. 1
- Symphonies of Wind Instruments
- Memorial to Martin Luther King
- Featuring Guest Cellist Anthony Elliott
- Serenade for Strings
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
- Adagio for Strings
Please Note: Our goal is to keep all of our attendees, musicians, and staff safe and healthy! Thank you for cooperating with the protocols listed below:
Each attendee must provide proof of full vaccination (14 days from their final shot) or a valid negative COVID test within 72 hours of attendance, present a valid photo ID, and wear a mask at all times inside the venue (nose and mouth fully covered). Please plan to arrive early for hall entrance checks.
For more information, please visit the Lincoln Center’s Safety Protocols or call the Lincoln Center Box Office: 970-221-6730
Cellist Anthony Elliott
The first Grand Prize winner of the Emmanuel Feuermann Memorial International Cello Solo Competition, Anthony Elliott garners critical acclaim for his performances as a concert cellist, conductor, and soloist. He studied with two legendary figures of the cello, Janos Starker and Frank Miller. He has given master classes at most of America’s leading music programs including Cleveland Institute of Music, Eastman School of Music, the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, Indiana University, Oberlin Conservatory, Peabody Conservatory, Chicago’s Music Center of the North Shore, and Interlochen Arts Academy. He devotes most of his summer to teaching and performing at the Aspen Music Festival.
As a frequent guest soloist with major orchestras, Mr. Elliott has performed most of the standard concerto repertory with the New York Philharmonic, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, the Vancouver Symphony, and the CBC Toronto Orchestra. He has commissioned new works by such composers as Primous Fountain III, Augustus Hill, James Lee III, and Chad E. Hughes. His performances have been recorded and broadcast on radio and television across the United States and Canada.
Also in great demand as a chamber musician, he is a regular guest artist at the Sitka (Alaska) Summer Music Festival, the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, the Texas Music Festival, New York’s Bargemusic Chamber Series, Chamber Music International of Dallas, Houston’s DaCamera Series, the Victoria International Festival, and the Gateways Festival. He has appeared as a member of Quartet Canada, with members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and with members of the Emerson, Juilliard, Cleveland, and Concord string quartets and in chamber music with the present and former concertmasters of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra.
Currently, Elliott is Professor Emeritus of Strings at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance in Ann Arbor.
Learn more about Anthony Elliott at UMich.edu.
Interview with Cellist Anthony Elliott on the Open Notes Podcast
Kenneth and Myra Monfort Charitable Foundation
Kilwins Chocolates and Ice Cream
Paul Wood Florist
Dr. David and Alison Dennis
Dr. Ed Siegel
Dr. Peter Springberg and Janet Kowall
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Week-of Concert Events:
Wednesday, February 2 at noon Mountain Time
Join CSU professor Dr. Dawn Grapes on the Wednesday prior to most Signature concerts for an entertaining and informative lecture about the upcoming featured composers. Sponsored by the Friends of the Symphony.
Meeting ID: 823 1447 7068
Meet the Guest Artist
Thursday, February 3 at noon Mountain Time
The Friends of the Symphony will host a virtual “Meet the Guest Artist” event on Zoom at 12 noon on Thursday, February 3, 2022. The Fort Collins Symphony guest cellist, Anthony D. Elliott, will perform composer Oskar Morawetz’s powerful Memorial to Martin Luther King at the Signature Concert 3 at 7:30 PM on Saturday, February 5, 2022 at the Fort Collins Lincoln Center.
Meeting ID: 892 3041 3691
Saturday, February 5 at 6:30 p.m.
at the Lincoln Center
included with ticket purchase
Prior to each Signature concert, join Maestro Wes Kenney for his musings on what you are about to hear.
Click here to read Dr. William E. Runyan’s in-depth program notes.
Dr. K. Dawn Grapes
Joan Tower (b. 1938)
Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1
Date of Composition: 1987
Duration: 3 minutes
American composer Joan Tower certainly fits into the category of “uncommon.” As a female composer coming of age in the mid-twentieth century, she had to overcome perceptions as to what a composer was and could be. Although Tower states she never personally felt discrimination, she notes the obstacles other composers have faced and has served as a staunch advocate for younger colleagues trying to break into the traditionally male-dominated field. Perhaps her upbringing in Bolivia from the age of nine kept her far enough removed from expectations of the American musical establishment to allow her to dream of a career generally unheard of for a woman in the U.S. at the time. Whatever the circumstances, she graduated with a DMA from Columbia University and was soon hired as a professor of composition at Bard College in 1972. Four years later she was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship. Since then she has received many prestigious awards, as well as commissions from major orchestras across the country.
Tower modeled her Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman on the similarly-titled Copland masterwork, utilizing the same performing forces of brass and percussion. The instrumentation seems an apt choice for a work written, in the composer’s words, to honor “women who take risks and who are adventurous.” The inscription is striking, especially when one considers that brass and percussion are the two orchestral sections least likely to feature female players. Tower dedicated the piece to noted conductor Marin Alsop, who finds herself in the top echelon of another musical discipline in which women are far underrepresented. Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman was originally commissioned by the Houston Symphony and premiered in 1987. Since then, Tower has composed five more fanfares with the same title, three for brass and percussion and two for full orchestra. Alsop recorded the first five with the Colorado Symphony in 1999. In 1987, interviewer Bruce Duffie asked Tower if she would rather be known as a woman composer or simply a composer. Her response? “… some people are not aware that there are no women composers on their concerts. So for that reason, I do like to be reminded this is a woman composer. ‘Have you ever heard a woman composer? Oh, yes, come to think of it, no.’ I think that’s an important reminder. Other than that, the music is the music.”
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Date of Composition: 1920/1947
Duration: 9 minutes
Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments displays several sides of the Russian-French-American composer’s compositional personality. Its clear form, unusual instrumentation, and even its title lend towards Stravinsky’s so-called “neo-classical” period. Yet several Russian folk themes are disguised within, recalling earlier works written for Diaghalev’s Ballet Russe. In these ways, the composition stands as a transitional work in the composer’s catalogue. Stravinsky undertook the piece in 1920. While working on it, the French journal Le Revue Musicale issued a call for compositions to honor the memory of Claude Debussy, who had died just two years previously. Ten composers completed memorial pieces, among them such notable names as Bartók, Ravel, Satie, Dukas, and de Falla. Stravinsky, who had been deeply influenced by the French master, contributed a short chorale written for piano. Highly affected by the experience, he decided not only to conclude his Symphonies d’Instuments à Vent using material from the musical tribute, but also ultimately dedicated the entire work to Debussy.
Stravinsky had not written such a substantial work for winds and percussion before. Music for wind ensemble, however, was gaining popularity at the time, thanks especially to concert band movements in the United States and England. The 1920s were fruitful in terms of wind literature. During the decade, composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Gordon Jacob, and Percy Grainger wrote a number of compositions now considered canonic in the band repertoire. These works were intended for full-size band, featured tuneful melodies often based on folk or nationalistic tunes, and were (and still are) quite accessible to audiences. Stravinsky’s composition is austere, at times even jagged, featuring instrumentation closer to an orchestral wind section than the British military bands of the time. Thus, it is not surprising that the audience did not quite know what to make of the piece at the 1921 premiere at London’s Queen’s Hall. Stravinsky responded, “This music is not meant to ‘please’ an audience, nor to arouse its passions. Nevertheless, I had hoped that it would appeal to some of those persons in whom a purely musical receptivity outweighed the desire to satisfy their sentimental cravings.” Stravinsky did not publish the work until 1947, after he had made substantial revisions to the score. The original 1920 version was published posthumously in 2001. Modern audiences have the advantage of hindsight, or “hindsound” as it may be. Contemporary performances offer fewer surprises to listeners who understand that in Stravinsky’s music, the unexpected is always to be expected.
Oskar Morawetz (1917–2007)
Memorial to Martin Luther King
Date of Composition: 1968
Duration: 21 minutes
Oskar Morawetz was one of Canada’s most successful composers. Yet many audiences have not heard his music. Morawetz was born and raised in Czechoslovakia. Just as he reached an age when his professional musical aspirations were in sight, the Nazi regime invaded his homeland. He moved to Vienna to continue his piano study, but as a young man of Jewish heritage, it became increasingly clear that remaining in the German lands was unrealistic. When Hitler occupied Prague in 1939, Morawetz’s father obtained documentation allowing the family to travel to England, eventually resettling in Canada. Morawetz, however, decided he would be safe in Paris, which was not the case. After a harrowing journey from France to Italy to the Canary Islands to the Dominican Republic, in 1940 he was finally reunited with his family in Canada where he completed his education at the University of Toronto, eventually joining the faculty himself.
Morawetz is, in many ways, a performer’s composer, as evidenced by the number of esteemed musicians who have commissioned or embraced his compositions. Glenn Gould, Jeanne Baxtresser, Itzhak Perlman, Jon Vickers, and Yo-Yo Ma are just some of the artists who have championed his work. In fact, it was famed cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who asked Morawetz to compose a cello concerto, but with some sort of unexpected instrumentation. This was the impetus for what was to become one of the composer’s most performed works, a Memorial to Martin Luther King. The concerto, composed in 1968 shortly after King’s death, programmatically portrays the civil rights leader’s final days, with sections musically depicting the Freedom March, the gunshot that claimed King’s life, and a funeral procession marked by quotation of the spiritual “Free at Last.” The composer described his vision as “the solo cello weeping above the marching procession epitomizing the cry of the people.” Morawetz honored Rostropovich’s instrumentation request by writing for an ensemble of orchestral winds and an expanded percussion section. He later explained, “It struck me. The image of the funeral processions passing by our house in Úpice when I was seven. I used to watch it with despair and deep sadness, thinking of the person who had died. I recalled that these processions were always accompanied by a wind band and drums. And so the idea of the funeral march being played solemnly by the wind instruments was born.” Thus, Morawetz’s words reveal the nostalgic recollection of a young boy whose life was irrevocably changed by notions of racial superiority in a land far away, while the composition itself stands as a tribute honoring the suffering felt throughout the Black community upon the death of King, and as an ongoing nod to those who continue to fight for an equality not yet achieved.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Serenade for Strings, op. 48
Date of Composition: 1880
Duration: 34 minutes
Few composers have possessed the ability to reflect emotions within their music as well as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Born in a small Russian village, Tchaikovsky began music lessons at an early age. His talent soon became apparent. His parents, however, hoped for a more stable profession for their son and so he trained for a career in public service. The pull of music was too great, however, and Tchaikovsky ended up at the conservatory in St. Petersburg. Upon graduation, he accepted a job at the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught composition. A decade later, Tchaikovsky received an offer of sponsorship from the wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, under the strange condition that the two never meet in person. Von Meck’s patronage allowed the musician to spend his time composing without interruption. The two corresponded regularly, and she became a primary means not only for financial, but also for emotional support.
Serenade for Strings was composed one summer when Tchaikovsky was in the Ukraine. While many of his works exhibit an ability to emote feelings, the serenade seems to encapsulate multiple sentiments, sometimes at the same time. Like Tower’s Fanfare and Stravinsky’s Symphonies for Winds, Tchaikovsky honored an important predecessor with his composition. In a letter to von Meck he revealed that the first movement was “my homage to Mozart; it is intended to be an imitation of his style, and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my model.” Tchaikovsky aptly captures the balance and charm of Mozart’s chamber settings, but also infuses the four-movement composition with the lush, heart-rending harmonies that are his trademark. The composer also combines a larger classical structure with elements of the nineteenth-century Viennese waltz, a moving elegy, and a finale that utilizes Russian folk themes, bringing together disparate worlds and channeling both solemnity and joy into one perfect package.
Samuel Barber (1910–1981)
Adagio for Strings
Date of Composition: 1936/1938
Duration: 9 minutes
… Wistful. Nostalgic. Touching.
Few pieces bring to mind as many emotion-filled adjectives as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Yet the Adagio really needs no words to describe it at all, for the composition is a complete sonic experience all its own. Although the work created a lasting legacy for its composer, Barber still would be considered one of America’s greats even without his most iconic piece of music. He was a prolific composer, producing a full catalogue of songs, piano works, operas, chamber music, and orchestral works. He won numerous awards, including the American Prix de Rome and not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes. Music seems to have been Barber’s destiny from the start. A child prodigy, Barber began composing at the age of seven. He wrote a one-act opera at ten. At twelve he served as church organist. Accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music at age fourteen, he studied piano, singing, and composition. The academy provided him with many opportunities and connections that would help him later in his career. His first publications appeared during his student years. In 1939, at 29 years old, he accepted a position teaching composition at his alma mater. He discovered, however, that academia was not his calling and after a few years he began concentrating on composition full time. Mary Curtis Bok, founder of the Curtis Institute, helped make this possible, taking the role of dedicated benefactor, both financially and through professional introductions.
In 1936, Barber composed his first string quartet, published as opus 11. He knew he had something special on his hands in the work’s slow, second movement even before its first performance in Rome. Not long afterward, Barber sent a version of the Adagio, arranged in seven parts for string orchestra, to Arturo Toscanini. The esteemed conductor premiered the work with the newly formed NBC Symphony Orchestra and the piece was immediately successful. The Adagio for Strings highlights much about Barber’s compositional style. His embrace of tonal music put him at odds with many of his contemporaries who were experimenting with modernist techniques at the time. The resulting accessibility, however, is what ensured the longevity of his work. Since its inception, Adagio for Strings has become inextricably linked to certain moments of shared heartache in our national experience: the announcement of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death, a broadcast of the National Symphony Orchestra playing to an empty hall after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the memorial after 9/11. Yet one might argue that it is not the feeling of grief emanating from Barber’s creation that makes the work so moving, but rather an inherent, introspective perception of hope that looks ever forward.
© 2022 Dr. K. Dawn Grapes
Dr. William E. Runyan
Joan Tower (b. 1938)
Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1
Joan Tower, of course, is one of America’s most recognized and honored composers, having contributed a wealth of significant compositions primarily for orchestra, including several solo concertos, and chamber ensembles. While the composer of an impressive number of significant works, ironically, perhaps the public thinks of her most for her six fanfares entitled Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman. The somewhat cheeky reference to Aaron Copland’s beloved composition is pellucidly clear. Four of her fanfares are scored for brass ensemble, some with percussion, and two are written for full orchestra. She composed the first in 1986 and the last in 2016 and they are collectively dedicated to “women who take risks and are adventurous.”
Each of the six fanfares is dedicated to one woman of merit, with the first fanfare recognizing the well-known conductor, Marin Alsop. The Houston Symphony commissioned the work and gave its première in 1987. The instrumentation of Tower’s work is the same as Copland’s, but adds additional percussion instruments. Like Copland’s fanfare, Tower’s begins with a monstrous percussion explosion, but eschewing his ponderous tempo, Tower’s work moves right out in a somewhat brisker tempo. Twittering motifs in the trumpets and gestures in the low brass that seem to evoke something of Copland yield to dense layers of distinct material in the various instruments. Driving rhythms seem to collapse into thick, dissonant tone clusters as the riotous texture grows. The “layers” of contrasting fanfare-like figures seem to cascade all over each other as they gallop along in growing intensity. An allusion to the opening “twitters” briefly surfaces before the smashing end.
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Symphonies of Wind Instruments
A few years after the end of WWI, Stravinsky’s musical thinking underwent a major shift. Of course, he was not alone in his generation, for ever since the turn of the century various composers had sought contrasts and answers to the inflated musical ideas of late Romanticism. Large orchestras gave way to small, varied groups. Extended tonal harmonies yielded to non-functional harmonies, or other schemes of organizing sound. Composers were looking everywhere for new directions.
But before Stravinsky’s shift came his Symphonies of Wind Instruments in memory of Claude-Achille Debussy, a work that seems to span the gap between the three great early ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring) and the important neo-classicism period that followed. It may be seen in some ways as the last of the works that partake significantly of native Russian elements—scales, motifs, and the like—while concomitantly looking forward to the spare textures and pungent colors of the future. Notwithstanding its title, one needs to disabuse oneself of any idea that the title is connected with the conventional genre of a symphony. Rather, it harkens back to the very early Italian reference to “combinations” of, and contrasts between, groups and sounds.
The Symphonies of Wind Instruments finds its origin in the spring of 1920, at which time Stravinsky had removed to France from Switzerland, where he had sat out the war. That year, a volume of the important journal, Revue musicale, was to be dedicated to the memory of Debussy, who had passed away two years earlier. For inclusion Stravinsky composed a brief chorale of homage. Very soon, he integrated the chorale into a larger composition, the main body of which was a series of contrasting episodes. Some of the material of which had been conceived independently, earlier.
The completed work, only about nine minutes long, is in the esteemed tradition of serious ensemble music for winds. The genre has a long history dating back to the time of Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice in the 1590s, right through works of Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák, and Gounod, among others. Of course, later in the twentieth century, many more works have been added by major composers for wind ensemble. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments is scored for more or less the woodwind and brass sections of a symphony orchestra (but no piccolo or bass clarinet). The color palette, in keeping with some of his other contemporaneous works, provided a perfect resource for the composer’s well-known proclivity for the clean, crisp, pungent sounds of wind instruments—a trait that he freely owned up to.
It is clear from the record that Stravinsky conceived of the work as a series of gestures stemming from the liturgy of the Orthodox church, even labeling some sections in the draft as “invocation,” “hymn of praise,” and so forth. There is also a “dance” idea—presumably liturgical dance. It is manifestly ritualistic, composed of “austere litanies.” The fundamental structural idea of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments is that of a succession of boldly contrasting sections—some very brief—each characterized by unique themes, harmonies, tempi, colors, rhythms, and textures. A montage, if you will. Sections are repeated from time to time, or alluded to, and will be easily recognized upon their return, generating an interesting mélange of contrasts. The most easily followed gesture is the opening “invocation,” or “bell” idea in the shrill clarinets. It occurs some six times.
The chorale in memory of Debussy, which was the work’s genesis, originally served as the opening, but the composer soon recognized its more appropriate position at the end. There are three and only three tempi in the Symphonies, more or less slow, medium, and fast—maintaining a clocklike precision throughout. They, typically of the composer, bear a very precise relation to each other, standing exactly in 2:3:4 ratios of speed (mm. 72, 104, 144). As the short sections alternate and evolve, there is growing sense of the impending chorale, which admirably brings the homage to a serene close.
This modest composition is clearly the most important work for large wind group of the entire twentieth century. It was not always considered so. Given its première in 1921 in London by the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra, led by Serge Koussevitzky, the performance is reputed to have been a rather slap dash affair. While the audience sniffed or laughed at some of the passages, at least the restrained English audience had the consideration to applaud the composer when he stood at the conclusion. There was no “French riot.” But the critics disapproved, and a rift between the composer and the conductor was fought out in the newspapers. Typical of the critics’ “purple” prose was the comment by the esteemed Ernest Newman: “I had no idea Stravinsky disliked Debussy so much as this.” Other comments were “a strange tribute,” “senseless ugliness,” and “the most hideous and most meaningless collections of noises.” Today, of course, we all know better, not because we are smarter, or more sophisticated, but because today we have a century of musical history, and consequently, musical acuity, under the belt. The composer, himself, in his Autobiography, had perhaps the last word: [the work was not meant] “to please an audience or to rouse its passions.” If any great composer was the “King of Cool,” it was Stravinsky.
Oskar Morawetz (1917–2007)
Memorial to Martin Luther King
Morawetz for over half a century was considered one of Canada’s outstanding composers. He was born in what is now the Czech Republic before the end of WWI, and studied in Prague until the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938. He thereupon continued his education in Vienna and Paris. With the advent of the war, after several futile attempts he managed to immigrate to Canada. By 1946 he was teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, later beginning a long career at the University of Toronto. During that time, he enjoyed widespread recognition and honor in his adopted country. Composer of well over one hundred compositions, he worked in most genres, except that of opera. Works for the orchestra were his forte, however.
His compositions have enjoyed great success over most of the globe, performed by the luminaries of the musical world. His musical style may be considered somewhat conservative, never characterized by the ways of the Avant Garde, such as serialism or say, electronic music. He had a secure mastery of the melodic line, dramatic pacing, and orchestra color. In his own words: “Ever since I was a child, music has meant for me something terribly emotional, and I still believe there has to be some kind of melodic line.” One of his most acclaimed and successful compositions is his From the Diary of Anne Frank (1970). Of the awards that it garnered was a special one (“the most important contribution to Jewish culture and music in Canada”) from the J.I. Segal Fund for Jewish Culture in Canada in Montreal.
The genesis of Memorial to Martin Luther King began before King’s death, in 1967, when the great Russian ‘cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, impressed with Morawetz’s Two Fantasies for Cello and Piano, asked the composer to write a work him. More specifically, Rostropovich asked that it be a rather unusual one: not a concerto with the “usual form and content nor with the standard sized orchestra.” Work went slowly, with minimal progress, until a few days after King’s murder Morawetz watched the extensive coverage of the obsequies on television. He thereupon conceived the nature of this rather unusual work: no strings at all, to feature the power and “dramatic colour” afforded by writing only for woodwinds, brass, a large percussion section, and piano. Furthermore, it would in form employ a technique rather out of favor in contemporary composition: a program. That is, the work would “tell a story,” a narrative in music, of the events — in sequence — of King’s last day: the Freedom March in Memphis, the gunshot of assassination, his death, and ending with a funeral march. The theme of the latter is based upon King’s favorite spiritual, “Free at last, Thank God Almighty, I am free at last.” The progress on the composition then went quickly, and the première took place in 1970 in Montreal. Accolades for the work soon came quickly, and it is now considered one of the outstanding contemporary compositions of its kind.
Notwithstanding the composer’s reputation as somewhat conservative in melodic and harmonic style, the very nature of this work almost demands a dark, rather dissonant and stark content. The introduction opens with a shriek of despair in the brass, accompanied by piano and percussion—setting the stage for the nation’s day of trauma. The solo ‘cello then enters, ruminating in a loose and almost disjunct fashion, exploiting the dark, lower range of the instrument. Insistent “throbbing” in the timpani and bass drum and dark wind chords complete the crepuscular atmosphere.
The narrative proper then begins with the “Freedom March” from earlier in the fatal day, led by the piano. As the somewhat jagged and punchy march proceeds the music tension ominously grows, little by little, until, of course, the fatal shot occurs—dramatically portrayed by a drum rim-shot, with timpani, bass drum, and whip, followed by a paroxysm of consternation in the winds. Solo ‘cello and orchestra interludes follow, varied, consistently evoking somber moods. Throughout, Morawetz demonstrates his imaginative mastery of wind and percussion orchestration.
The following funeral procession is woven through with elements of the melody of the spiritual “Free at Last . . . ,” but in textures and harmonies that are everything but stable and traditional. Here, the composer gives the lead to the wind orchestra, and employs the soloist as a kind of commentator between the orchestra’s clear iterations of the spiritual’s material.
The wind orchestra leads us to the finale with an extended statement, weaving a weft of motives and ideas from earlier, after which the solo ‘cello begins the peroration. In best theatrical fashion, it deftly and gradually climbs higher and higher in tessitura, all the time seemingly drifting away from the turgid pain of the earlier heartbreak. The end is ethereal, limpid, and seems to transcend and float above the leaden emotion of the day’s tragedy.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Serenade for Strings, op. 48
Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies, two of his solo concertos, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake are surely mainstays of the traditional and popular symphonic repertoire, whose inimitable melodies no doubt most come to mind to music lovers everywhere. To this must be added the American contemporary mania for his ballet, The Nutcracker, at Christmastime and the potboiler 1812 Overture on Independence Day. Notwithstanding the depth and breadth of his large oeuvre — including chamber music, songs, operas, other overtures, ballets, and concertos, solo piano works, and more — his evergreen Serenade for Strings, too, takes a secure place with the aforementioned popular audience favorites. It’s an eternal favorite, and is perhaps best known for its use by the great choreographer George Balanchine in his ballet, Serenade (1934).
Tchaikovsky’s first mature compositions stem from 1867, with his initial widespread recognition coming with Romeo and Juliet in 1869. The 1870s were years of great fecundity, and saw such masterpieces as the ballet Swan Lake, the first piano concerto and his violin concerto, Eugene Onegin, and his fourth symphony. And more.
After all of this success, in the Fall of 1880 he started sketching out rough designs for a multi-movement work—in his mind not clearly a string quartet or a symphony—and working quickly he soon finished what had become a serenade for string orchestra.
In a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, he wrote that he “. . . composed from an innate impulse; that is something which arises from having freedom to think, and is not devoid of true worth.” Cast in four movements, it received its première later that fall at the Moscow Conservatory, in a private performance as a surprise for the visiting composer. It soon enjoyed widespread performance, making its way to New York by 1885. The composer himself conducted it at a performance in Baltimore in 1891. Its popularity and reputation have remained ensconced in the repertoire.
The first of its four movements, Pezzo in forma di sonatina, was conceived as a conscious reflection of the style of Mozart in the form of a classical sonatina, including a slow introduction. Mozart was Tchaikovsky’s favorite composer, and he penned this pastiche in his honor. The Serenade may be scored for strings alone, but the introductory andante begins with a muscular, powerful mien, with rich, full scoring for the strings, including double stops galore. Tchaikovsky loved a big, full string sound, and in this case averred that the more the better! The simple opening motif is repeated several times, each in a nuanced different scoring in the best Tchaikovsky manner, before the thirty-seven bars come to a pianissimo end.
The fast movement proper ensues immediately, and the first theme, while not a waltz per se, displays the familiar Tchaikovsky mastery of its pulsing compound meter. After some forays into darker keys, the second theme (in G Major) clearly is arrived at, and in this case is a scampering affair in fast, repeated notes. As is often common in a sonatina, there is no development and after the second theme has had its due, the first theme returns, followed by the second theme, this time in the textbook main key. An abbreviated return of the opening andante concludes the work, but notice the sly chromatic allusion to darker matters just before the end.
The second movement is a charming little waltz, a dance style in which Tchaikovsky was sans pareil. The simple tune, mostly just a scale, shows how much the composer could do with the simplest of materials—not unlike a great chef. After the usual diversion in the middle of the movement, the main theme returns and cadences gently. Throughout, the composer makes frequent and enchanting use of the little hesitations and stop times so typical of the graceful choreography of the waltz.
Elégie is perhaps the most substantive of the four movements, and opens with more of Tchaikovsky’s adroit use of simple scales as melodic material. Its lush, close voicing, and somewhat ambiguous tonality gives it a rather antique aura. It soon seems to settle on the relative minor key, but then quickly moves to D Major for the following animato section. There, the winsome tune (again, a simple scale) is nothing so much as an implied vocal “serenade” with triplet pizzicatos in the rest of the orchestra evoking a “singer’s” guitar accompaniment. Various other sections take up the tune in artful variations, with beguiling counterpoint, until a little cadenza-like passage in the first violins takes us to the recap of the slow introduction. But Tchaikovsky is not finished yet. In a manner so familiar from his symphonies, he extends the passage, and introduces his familiar “throbbing” cross-rhythms over a sustained bass. Then, everyone ascends into the acoustic stratosphere to end as high and soft as possible on harmonics.
The last movement has a rather slow introduction, too, starting in the high, soft vein as the previous ending—this time with mutes. After some brief musical musing in a rather subdued mood, the “spirited” movement proper begins. Both slow introduction and the following allegro are based upon Russian traditional melodies. The first fast tune is a rather simple little one, whose dance-like character is worked through thoroughly before yielding to the second idea — a somewhat more lyrical one. Tchaikovsky wrings a lot out of these two little melodies, adding some gracious countermelodies along the way, before a return to the rich, full slow introduction to the first movement rounds the whole thing off. After which a scampering coda based on the first Russian tune races to the end, with the usual Tchaikovsky mastery of a scintillating dash to the conclusion.
Samuel Barber (1910–1981)
Adagio for Strings
If any composer may truly be considered our national composer, Samuel Barber should surely be in the running. Notwithstanding the adulation of Aaron Copland’s populist music from the 1930s and 40s, most of the latter composer’s compositions in other musical styles are not well received by the American public — too dissonant and modern! On the other hand, no major American composer of the twentieth century was a more ardent and eloquent champion of a lyrical, accessible, yet modern idiom, than Samuel Barber. His musical style is founded in the romantic traditions of the nineteenth century, whose harmonic language and formal structures were his point of departure. Unlike so many of his peers, he was not powerfully swayed by the modernism emanating from Europe after World War I, but pursued his own path.
Consistently a lyrical composer throughout his career, it is telling that his songs constitute about two-thirds of his compositions in number. His vocal works include two major operas, Vanessa (1956), and Antony and Cleopatra (1966), the latter composed for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center. But he also composed at least one work for almost every musical genre, and unlike most composers, he was a recognized and published composer from his student days on. At the age of twenty-one his overture to The School for Scandal was an instant success, was forthwith published, and remains in the standard repertoire.
Though his choral music and solo vocal music are concert mainstays, the Adagio for Strings is undoubtedly his most well-known work. It is the second movement of his String Quartet, arranged for string orchestra. In 1936, when he was twenty-six years old, he and his life’s partner, the equally distinguished Italian composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, were living in Europe for the summer, and the quartet was written there. The quartet has only three movements, and apparently, the composer knew from the beginning that the slow middle movement was something special. The quartet received its première in Rome in late 1936, but Barber revised the last movement the next year before its first performance in the U.S. Even before all this, it is apparent that Barber had recognized the gold of the middle movement, and extracted the movement, arranging it for string orchestra right away in 1936. In this full, lush guise the composer sent the full score to Toscanini in early 1938, and soon received it back with no comment. That was a bit irksome, and Barber felt slightly offended, but soon all was put right, as the legendary conductor soon informed Barber that he had memorized the complete score, and sent it back as a courtesy. Toscanini conducted the première of the string orchestra version in November of 1938 in a live radio broadcast (a recording was made) from Rockefeller Center, and the rest is history, so to speak. It went on to take its place as a very special composition in the American psyche, and like the “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations in Great Britain, a performance of the Adagio for Strings is almost mandatory for moments of great national reflection and grief.
It is a relatively simple work, like much great art, but concomitantly is also the stunning application of genius and inspiration in its creation. A straightforward melody enters after a unison low Bb in the violins and a rich response from the low strings. Composed of a searching three-note figure and a descending scale and return, this idea is passed around the orchestra in a dialogue of string voices. Beneath it all, a rich bed of ever-shifting harmonies sustains. Barber makes much of the homogeneous timbre of the string section—like great, unaccompanied vocal choruses—to “sneak” remarkable dissonance and its resolution into the texture. And of course, it is this very commonplace of music technique that produces much of what has always been perceived as beauty, in this case, wrenching beauty. Expressive upward leaps in the melodic line, resolving to ever-shifting harmonies, mostly complete the picture, as the instruments—and the tension—climb higher and higher. An ever-changing pulse contributes to the unease, as the soaring climax is reached. A few dramatic chords, a pause, and Barber returns to a brief restatement of the beginning. As it ends, impossibly softly, there is no traditional harmonic resolution, but concludes with a “hanging” chord, with no real sense of finality. It could not better mirror the irresolution of existence, grief, and human lives.
© 2021 Dr. William E. Runyan