OKC Classics I (9-10-16, Opening Night Gala)
Manuel de Falla
Interlude and Dance from the opera La vida breve
Born: November 23, 1876, in Cádiz, Spain
Died: November 14, 1946, in Alta Gracia, Argentina
Work composed: The opera La vida breve was written from August 24, 1904, through (at latest) March 31, 1905.
Work premiered: April 1, 1913, at the Casino Municipal de Nice, France, with M.J. Miranne conducting
Instrumentation: Two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, castanets, glockenspiel, two harps, celesta, and strings
As a teenager, Manuel de Falla y Matheu set his sights on becoming an author, but by the time he was 20 he acquiesced instead to a consuming passion for music. His youthful piano studies paid off, and he advanced quickly through musical instruction, graduating in 1899 from the Madrid Conservatory with a first prize in piano and a thorough education in harmony, counterpoint, and composition. Nonetheless, Falla’s first steps in his chosen profession were far from dynamic. Unable to scrape together a living by composing serious music and not quite a good enough pianist to find acclaim in the recital hall, he turned to the closest enterprise that might prove commercially viable, the composition of zarzuelas, peculiarly Spanish stage works that might be described as a regional variation on operetta. He composed six between 1900 and 1904; only one reached the stage, and it left him no better off financially than before.
Still, those early experiences helped clarify his goals, and they prepared him to realize his first certifiable masterpiece, La vida breve (The Brief Life), a true opera, which he wrote in 1904-05. But plans to produce it fell through, and Falla, recognizing that Spain was too far off the beaten path of cutting-edge culture for his restless talent, left in 1907 for where the action was—Paris. He remained there until 1914, associating closely with Dukas, Debussy, and Ravel. During those years he refined his craft as a musical Impressionist without sacrificing the Spanish flavor that lay at the root of his inspiration. The outbreak of World War I forced his return to Spain, but this time Madrid proved more amenable to his talent. He arrived just in time to catch the Spanish premiere of La vida breve, a year after the work’s world premiere, which had taken place in Nice, in French translation—an ironic twist of fate for this quintessentially Spanish opera. Further stage works rich in Spanish flavor flowed from his pen, beginning with El amor brujo (1915), and in 1916 Falla heard the premiere of his first major symphonic work, Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain). The ballet El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-cornered Hat) followed in 1916-17, and the puppet opera El retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Play) in 1919-22, after which he would spend two decades working on his final stage work, the “scenic cantata” Atlántida, which he left incomplete when he died, in 1946 in Argentina, where he had been stranded since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
La vida breve was the 28-year-old composer’s winning submission to a competition for new Spanish works announced by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando (Madrid) in 1904. Falla and his librettist, Carlos Fernández Shaw, wrote three prospective subjects on slips of paper and left the decision to the chance of the draw. La vida breve was picked, and they completed it in seven months. One of the other possibilities, El sombrero de tres picos, went on the back burner, to be realized more than a decade later.
In La vida breve we have a notable Spanish entry in the annals of verismo opera, with a characteristic plot involving failed love, disreputable behavior, and a violent death, all set “in contemporary times” against the realistic sounds of an evocative, somewhat gritty locale—in this case, El Albaicín, which was the predominantly Gypsy neighborhood of Granada. Listening to Falla’s remarkable score one cannot help thinking that this is music by someone who admired Puccini, and particularly by someone deeply familiar with Tosca (premiered four years earlier), which La vida breve apes in certain musical details. Its libretto does what it has to do competently, even if Salud, the spurned heroine, is the only character revealed in much depth—and if her sudden dénouement seems implausible. Still, it was a signal achievement, and Falla declared in 1910: “What had been published before 1904 is worthless. … La vida breve is the first work I can count on and perhaps the one I prefer.”
Salud is a young woman who has been Paco’s girlfriend but is unaware that he has become enamored of Carmela. Salud innocently stumbles across the festivities for Paco and Carmela’s impending wedding. She accuses Paco of deceiving and abandoning her, and finally demands that he kill her. When he refuses, she advances toward him and falls dead at his feet.
The popular concert extract known as the “Interlude and Dance” links two passages from the work’s second act, though in reverse order from how they appear in the opera. The interlude separates the act’s two scenes, standing at the point where Salud (accompanied by her uncle) enters the wedding banquet for her final, fatal confrontation with the man who has spurned her. The moody transition shifts restlessly among various emotions, sometimes calm, sometimes nervous. The music breaks into the vivacious dance, overflowing with Spanish flavor, which she had seen when she looked in at the guests in the preceding scene.
In the Composer’s Words
Later in life Falla enumerated what motivated him when he composed La vida breve:
I had four aims in mind while making La vida breve.
1. To make a Spanish opera in dramatic form, something which I could find no example of in the entire history of Spanish lyrical theatre.
2. To compose the music from a series of popular songs and dances.
3. To try, above and beyond all else, to evoke the feelings of fear and joy, of hope and torment, of life and death, of exultation and depression, all linked to certain personal images of place, moments, landscape, etc.
4. To notch up some money in order to carry on working.
English Dances, Second Set, Op. 33
Born: October 21, 1921, in Northampton, England
Died: September 23, 2006, in Norwich, England
Work composed: 1951
Work premiered: August 5, 1952, at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, with Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra
Instrumentation: Three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, harp, and strings
If one had asked Malcolm Arnold which items in his vast catalogue he would most like to represent him in posterity, he would probably have pointed to his nine symphonies. They peppered his career at regular intervals from 1949, just when he committed to a full-time composing career, until 1986, by which time he was doing his best to reassemble a life that had been decimated by depression. These are the works in which Arnold grappled most overtly with personal, political, and strictly musical issues that interested him. They are also the compositions that most clearly connect him to the mainstream of the European tradition, and particularly to the composers he cited as wielding influence on his style: Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams. Then, too, he might have pointed to his twenty-odd concertos, which he conceived as musical portraits of the soloists for whom they were written, an A-list of instrumentalist friends that included the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the oboist Leon Goossens, the clarinetist Benny Goodman, the horn-player Dennis Brain, and the guitarist Julian Bream.
The listening public, however, is not likely to be dissuaded from pigeonholing Arnold as an unusually adroit master of light music. If most of his 130 film scores have been forgotten along with the movies to which they were attached, a handful live on as classics, including those for the David Lean trilogy The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1953), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), an Oscar-winning score with an unforgettable march. British music-lovers of advancing maturity are sure to remember Arnold as a key collaborator of the tuba-playing humorist Gerard Hoffnung, for whom he produced his once famous A Grand Grand Overture (1956) for Organ, Three Vacuum Cleaners, Electric Floor Polisher, Four Rifles, and Orchestra—perfect ammunition for Hoffnung’s mock-serious skewering of musical pomposity.
His life was a roller coaster marked by extreme behavior and emotional swings. He began his career as a trumpeter in the London Philharmonic. Declared ineligible for active service in World War II, he was assigned to play in a military band; he found the job so appalling that he shot himself through the foot to earn a medical discharge. Although he actively encouraged composers who worked in the avant-garde, serialist vein that was nearly de rigueur in the post-War years, his own compositions inhabited an entirely tonal, melodious world that earned him the reputation of a reactionary. This nearly did him in. To quote from the 3000-word (!) obituary British Bandsman magazine ran in 2006: “The effects of a heavy work schedule, together with the apparent critical disdain of his serious works, caused Arnold to suffer a mental collapse. Like Elgar before him, he entered into deep depression and began to rely more and more upon liquid sustenance of an alcoholic nature. Several breakdowns and suicide attempts followed and, although he managed to continue writing substantial works, many of them … reveal a troubled inner world.”
His various collections of dances from the British Isles, however, are innocent of such cares. His two sets of English Dances (Op. 27 and Op. 33) came about in response to a request from the English publishing house Alfred Lengnick & Co. The company derived the bulk of its business form being the sole British representative of the Simrock music publishers of Germany, whose imprint was rich in works by Brahms and Dvořák. The folks at Lengnick couldn’t help noticing that Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances qualified as “cash cows.” Since the firm was also developing a sideline publishing British composers in the years just after World War II, it asked a number of them to compose English counterparts to Dvořák’s evergreen sets. Arnold provided a group of four such pieces in 1950 and then the next year followed up with four more, that Second Set being the one performed here.
The opening Allegro non troppo of the Second Set is the longest movement of the two collections, although even it runs only about three minutes. It opens with a perky tune spotlighting the flute section; when Arnold created an arrangement for brass band, he asked the players to whistle this opening melody, echoing what he had done in his famous Colonel Bogey March from The Bridge Over the River Kwai. The second movement is based on a jaunty jig-tune, which escalates in grandeur as brass and percussion instruments gradually swell the tempo. The relaxed Grazioso movement has a pastoral feel, at least at the beginning, its modal harmonies recalling the sound of Vaughan Williams at his most folksy. To conclude, Arnold offers a jubilant movement pumped up by a majestic trombone tune in the middle.
All Over the Map
One of the traits Malcolm Arnold shared with his forebear Vaughan Williams was a passion for folk music from throughout the British Isles, which he might incorporate into his original compositions through quotation or imitation. Among Arnold’s many folk-infused orchestral works we find not only his two sets of English Dances (1950-51), but also A Sussex Overture (1951), Four Cornish Dances (1966), Four Irish Dances (1986), Four Welsh Dances (1989), and A Manx Suite (1990). Scotland is represented in his catalogue not only by his Four Scottish Dances (1957) but also by his Tam o’Shanter Overture (1955). Asked in a 1991 interview about the populist streak in his music, Arnold replied: “All the concert music is meant for the largest possible audience that can be had. I say always, when I write music, the loneliest thing is to sit at a desk with a piece of manuscript paper in front of you, and no thought of an audience.”
Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Op. 24
Born: June 11, 1864, in Munich, Bavaria, Germany
Died: September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Work composed: 1888-89, completed on November 18 of the latter year
Work premiered: June 21, 1890, at the Eisenach Stadttheater in Germany, with the composer conducting
Instrumentation: Three flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, three timpani, tam-tam, two harps, and strings
The idea of the symphonic poem may trace its ancestry to the dramatic or depictive overtures of the early 19th century, such as Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture or Berlioz’s Waverley Overture, but it was left for Franz Liszt to mold it into a clearly defined genre. This he did through a series of dozen single-movement orchestral pieces composed in the 1840s and ’50s that drew inspiration from, or were in some way linked to, literary sources. The idea proved popular in Germany and elsewhere, and the repertoire quickly grew through contributions by such composers as Smetana, Dvořák, Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Franck, and—most impressively of all—Richard Strauss.
Many lesser figures also jumped on the symphonic poem bandwagon. One of them was Alexander Ritter, an Estonian-born violinist and composer who fell in with the Liszt and Wagner circle, married a niece of Wagner’s, composed six symphonic poems of his own, and eventually acceded to the position of associate concertmaster of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, which was conducted by the eminent Hans von Bülow. In Meiningen he grew friendly with the young Richard Strauss, who von Bülow had brought in as an assistant music director in 1885. Strauss would later say that it was Ritter who revealed to him the greatness of the music of Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz and, by extension, opened his eyes to the possibilities of the symphonic poem. In 1886, Strauss produced what might be considered his first symphonic poem, Aus
Italien (it is more precisely a descriptive symphony), and he continued with hardly a break through the series of tone poems that many feel represent the genre at its height: Macbeth (1886-8), Don Juan (1888-89), Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration, also 1888-89), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, 1894-95), Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1895-96), Don Quixote (1896-97), Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life, 1897-98), and Symphonia Domestica (1902-03). Eine Alpensymphonie (An Alpine Symphony, 1911-15) would become a late pendant to Strauss’ catalogue of symphonic poems.
As a group, this remarkable series covers quite a spectrum of the human experience. Tod und Verklärung, however, deals exclusively with serious, metaphysical matters. As Strauss explained some years after the fact, he had set out “to represent the death of a person who had striven for the highest and most ideal goals, possibly an artist.” This was already an “evolved” choice for the basis of a symphonic poem, since the genre was understood to be a musical interpretation of a pre-existent literary work or perhaps a painting. In this case, Strauss simply worked from a general idea. Nonetheless, after he had composed the piece, an appropriate poem was supplied retroactively by none other than Alexander Ritter. The poem was printed in the program for the premiere and then was expanded for the published score. Ritter was apparently a better musician than poet, and in its ultimate version his long-winded text rather overstays its welcome.
The progress of the action is quite clear for those who care to approach the work that way. In 1895, Strauss acquiesced to a friend’s request to provide an explanation of the piece’s action:
The sick man lies in a bed asleep, breathing heavily and irregularly; agreeable dreams charm a smile onto his features in spite of his suffering; his sleep becomes lighter; he wakens; once again he is racked by terrible pain, his limbs shake with fever—as the attack draws to a close and the pain resumes, the fruit of his path through life appears to him, the idea, the Ideal which he has tried to realize, to represent in his art, but which he has been unable to perfect because it was not for any human being to perfect it. The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body, in order to find perfected in the most glorious form in the eternal cosmos that which he could not fulfill here on earth.
Strauss remained fond of this early tone poem throughout his career and quoted from it in several of his later works, including the song cycle Krämerspiegel (1918) and, most magically, in the song “Im Abendrot” (1946-48) from the Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), where the horn sounds the “Artistic Ideal” motif at the point when the singer wonders “Can this perhaps be death?” (In Tod und Verklärung, first horn, third trumpet, two trombones, violas, and cellos sound the theme together.) In the context of the Vier letzte Lieder, Strauss suggested that the moment represented not just death, but also transfiguration, and he felt moreover that his musical theme held up well for the purpose, though it had been composed nearly six decades earlier. He confirmed his accuracy in the summer of 1949, when, on his deathbed, he declared to his daughter-in-law, “It’s a funny thing to say, but this business of dying, it’s just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.”
The Plot of Tod und Verklärung
The episodes Strauss described in his précis of Tod und Verklärung are divided into four broad sections: the sick man and his dreams (Largo); the man’s struggle with death (Allegro molto agitato); the man seeing his life pass before him and giving himself over to death (Meno mosso, ma sempre alla breve); and the man’s redemption and transfiguration (Moderato). The tableaux are depicted with considerable subtlety. In the opening sections, for example, irregular breathing is represented by gentle syncopations and pain through an agitated orchestral outburst. The famous “Artistic Ideal” theme certainly possesses great nobility, and its octave leap is a Straussian fingerprint already at this early point in his career. But it is not necessary to follow the “plot” of Tod und Verklärung slavishly—or at all—in order to appreciate the piece. It would stand on its own perfectly well as a piece of non-programmatic music; Strauss himself stated at one point that the real reason he composed Tod und Verklärung was a “musical need … to write a piece that begins in C minor and ends in C major”—which is precisely what he did.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44
Born: April 25 (old style)/May 7 (new style), 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia
Died: October 25/November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg, Russia
Work composed: October 10/22, 1879, to April 28/May 10, 1880
Work dedicated: To Nikolai Rubinstein
Work premiered: November 12, 1881, at New York’s Academy of Music, with Theodore Thomas conducting the New York Philharmonic and Madeline Schiller as soloist
Instrumentation: Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings, in addition to the solo piano
When music-lovers speak of “the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto,” they are referring to his First Piano Concerto, in B-flat minor, composed in 1874-75, revised through 1889, and ubiquitous on concert programs throughout the world. Tchaikovsky would go on to compose two further piano concertos, and the Second and Third are nearly as obscure as the First is famous.
The First had given rise to a traumatic incident. The composer had asked Nikolai Rubinstein, his colleague on the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, to read through the work and offer his thoughts on certain technical matters in the piano part. Rubinstein rendered a scathing assessment, not so much about the piano writing as about the piece in general. In truth, there was room for improvement and Tchaikovsky ended up revising the piece. Even before then, Rubinstein came around to its strengths, performed it as a pianist, led it as a conductor, and taught it to his students. Among the latter was the pianist-composer Sergei Taneyev, who had also been a pupil of Tchaikovsky’s.
Whatever hurt the contretemps had engendered was smoothed over by the time Tchaikovsky wrote his Second Piano Concerto five years later and dedicated it to none other than Nikolai Rubinstein, in recognition of “his magnificent playing of my First Concerto and of my [G-major] Sonata which left me in utter rapture after he performed it for me in Moscow.” Again he submitted it for Rubinstein’s comments. At first word came back, via Taneyev, “that there’s absolutely nothing to change,” but before long he did offer some suggestions. Tchaikovsky related to his patron Nadezhda von Meck, “[Rubinstein] tells me in his opinion the piano part appears to be too episodic, and does not stand out sufficiently from the orchestra. … If he is right this will be very galling because I took pains precisely on this, to make the solo instrument stand out in as much relief as possible against the orchestral background.”
Rubinstein was planning to the play the premiere, but he died before that could occur and the first performance instead took place in America, with Theodore Thomas conducting the New York Philharmonic. Taneyev played the Moscow premiere, with Nikolai Rubinstein’s brother Anton conducting.
For listeners who judge a piece by its structural tightness, Tchaikovsky rarely stands as a model. Indeed, the Second Piano Concerto moves from paragraph to paragraph with an attitude that can seem rhapsodic, but once a listener becomes accustomed to its flow it is in no way illogical. The first movement includes an extended section in which the solo piano develops the melodic material at length—a sort of development section rather than a cadenza per se—and its concluding pages are splendid indeed, blossoming with striking harmonic invention and brilliant figuration. The tempo marking of the middle movement—Andante non troppo—implies a gait that is relaxed without being slow. Solo violin and cello play prominent roles in the texture, sometimes joining with the piano to prefigure, in a way, the A-minor Piano Trio of a decade later, one of the summits of the composer’s oeuvre. One might imagine some of the music of this leisurely movement as being plucked from a French lyric opera. The finale seems almost a brief afterthought in this concerto, compact in relation to the preceding movements and bringing the piece to its conclusion on a note of graceful good spirits and a full measure of charm.
A Competing Edition
Another pianist got into the action of offering Tchaikovsky advice about revising this concerto: Alexander Siloti, his former pupil and now a friend. Tchaikovsky, however, resisted Siloti’s suggestions, saying that he “emphatically cannot agree with your cuts and especially with your re-ordering of the first movement.” But Siloti would not let the matter rest. Three months before Tchaikovsky died we find him writing to his publisher, Jurgenson, to emphasize that he did not agree with Siloti’s ideas. Nonetheless, Jurgenson issued a new edition of the piece in 1897, the title page of which declared that it was a “New edition revised and shortened following the instructions of the author, by A. Siloti.” That meant the piece was now competing with itself in two quite distinct versions, a state of affairs that did not help it in posterity. On the rare occasions when this concerto is played today, it is usually heard not in Siloti’s abbreviated re-writing but rather in the version Tchaikovsky wrote and sanctioned, as it is in this concert.
The Falla, Strauss, and Tchaikovsky notes appeared in an earlier form in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and are reprinted with permission; © New York Philharmonic. Arnold note, © James M. Keller
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. From 1990-2000 he wrote about music on staff at The New Yorker, and in 1999 he received the prestigious ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for his feature writing in Chamber Music magazine, which he serves as Contributing Editor.