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STEPPING STONES OF THE 20th CENTURY
PROGRAM NOTES

October 25, 2015 │ Tsai Performance Center │ 3 p.m.

Irving Fine
Toccata Concertante (1947)
Irving Fine was an American composer within the Boston orbit whose lyrical gifts and musical refinement exhibit affinities with music of his own musical heroes, especially Stravinsky, although in his own distinctly personal style. As an academic, he was associated with Harvard University and more especially with Brandeis University, as Chairman of its School of Creative Arts. His short musical career brought him into close contact with Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, and Serge Koussevitzky, colleagues who admired his works. As the title of today’s work shows, Fine was attracted to genres suggestive of the baroque and classical eras in a neoclassical vein. Its setting for a large orchestra, and some of its motoric musical details and woodwind writing, may well bring such works as Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1942–45) to mind.

Fine described the Toccata Concertante as follows:

“The piece is roughly in sonata form. There is a short fanfare-like introduction [Allegro energico] containing two motives that generate most of the subsequent thematic material. The following exposition contains a first section that makes prominent use of an ostinato and is rather indeterminate in tonality. A transitional theme, announced by the trumpet and continued by the flute and the bassoon, is abruptly terminated and followed by a second theme-group more lyrical in character. In this section the thematic material is chiefly entrusted to solo wind instruments supported by string accompaniment. The whole of the exposition is concluded by additional woodwind dialogue and scattered references to some of the preceding material. There are several episodes in the development, one of the most prominent being a fugato announced by the clarinets and based on the opening ostinato. There is no break between the development and the recapitulation, the return of the first material commencing at the climax of the development. The second and closing sections of the exposition are recapitulated in the main tonality without significant changes except for a few in instrumentation and texture. The whole piece is rounded off by an extended coda.”

This was Fine’s first piece for full orchestra. The 32-year-old composer did his main work on it at the MacDowell Colony, in the company of Copland, Roy Harris, Marc Blitzstein, and Douglas Moore —first in a piano version and then blocking out the instrumentation. It took him some time to settle on a title for this work, something to capture its “fanfare-like character” of concerted baroque music, considering it perhaps a sinfonia or masque, or an orchestra overture to be called “Symphony Allegro.” You may hear an especially Russian feature in its use of the octatonic scale that alternates whole and half steps, yet another link to Stravinsky.

Fine dedicated the Toccata Concertante to his wife. Its premiere was on October 22, 1947, at Symphony Hall, with Koussevitsky conducting the Boston Symphony. Most recently, this work was recorded by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), conducted by Gil Rose, in an excellent CD of Irving Fine’s complete orchestral works.

—Raymond H. Rosenstock

Anton Webern
Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6 (1909, rev. 1928)
“No motif is developed; at most, a brief progression is immediately repeated. Once stated, the theme expresses all it has to say; it must be followed by something fresh”—so wrote Anton Webern regarding Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, op. 11 (1909), and this applies equally this composition by Webern himself. He lovingly dedicated it to his father, and Schoenberg conducted the premiere of the original version (op. 4, 1909) on March 31, 1913. That performance, also featuring works by Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky, Gustav Mahler, and Alban Berg, was aborted by rioting such as would occur not long thereafter in Paris with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The 1928 revision of the Six Pieces thinned out orchestral doublings and changed some tempi, and what remains is still an amazingly disquieting expressionist work. It shares that quality with the perhaps more familiar Five Pieces for Orchestra (op. 16, 1909) of Schoenberg, along with its early use of Klangfarbmelodie (timbre-color-melody). These works are predominantly atonal, with just the smallest hints of tonality in surprising places. The Webern work, early though it is, already draws the listener into focusing on the smallest changes and events, while his “musical microorganisms” express their intimate messages.

Apart from the dedication to Schoenberg, addressed as “beloved father,” the music may also be linked to the death of Webern’s mother in 1906. Although it is scored for a much larger orchestra than Webern was to use again, most of the instrumentation you will hear is for chamber groups within the ensemble that create moods both eerily delicate and occasionally violent.

The first movement, in a slow tempo, counterbalances short gestures of gentleness, later brusqueness, and a return to gentleness. The second movement, marked Bewegt (with motion), features more restless repeated notes in the strings, trombone trills, and fearful interjections by other instruments leading to ferocious outbursts at the end. The very short and ghostly third movement, eleven bars in moderate tempo, brings the musical interval of the second to the fore and exploits instrumental register and timbre in extraordinarily refined ways. The fourth movement, rather extended in context (40 bars) and very moderate in tempo, and marked in the earlier version as Langsam marcia funebre (Slow funeral march), features percussion and winds starting almost imperceptibly softly; near its end, the brasses grow in intensity before all hell breaks loose—reaching an extreme expression that may bring Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893) to mind. The last two movements are very slow, and they add a rarified solemnity—indeed a mournfulness—to this remarkable early work in the career of Webern.

—Raymond H. Rosenstock

Dmitri Shostakovich
October: Symphonic Poem, op. 131
(1967)
Shostakovich’s life spanned the last years of Tsarist Russia, the Revolution, the Stalinist era, two world wars, and the Cold War. His worldwide prominence as a composer and pianist helped him navigate the dangerous and constantly changing cultural politics of the Soviet Union, which sometimes denounced the composer and sometimes promoted him. His resistance to the prevailing ideologies tended to take the form of messages encoded in his music rather than direct political dissent.

This work is a case in point. Although Shostakovich had found a measure of freedom after being “rehabilitated” following the death of Stalin in 1953, and even signed letters of protest on behalf of fellow artists in the mid-1960s, he could not refuse a state commission to compose a work to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. The dramatic symphonic poem that resulted is stirring and even strident in its vivid depiction of heroic exploits and military actions. Yet its introduction quotes a theme from the composer’s Tenth Symphony, written in part to celebrate the death of Stalin; and the Allegro borrows a freedom fighters’ song that had appeared in an earlier film score. Both suggest a more complicated view of the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, for those who can hear between the lines.

Maurice Ravel
Shéhérazade: Three Poems for Voice and Orchestra
(1903)
Ravel, along with many European poets, artists, and musicians of his time, was caught up in a fascination for all things “Oriental”—seen through a Western lens, and lumping together “exotic” cultures from the Middle East to South Asia. One well-known example of this trend is Claude Debussy’s La mer, also composed beginning in 1903, which was inspired by a print of the Great Wave by the Japanese artist Hokusai.

The poet and composer Tristan Klingsor (the pen name of Arthur Justin Léon Leclère) was a member of the “Apaches,” a self-consciously avant-garde group of artists that included the young Ravel. His collection of one hundred poems loosely inspired by the Arabic legend of Sheherazade proved alluring to the composer, who chose to set three of them as a suite for soprano and orchestra. The texts are sensual and allusive, and the melodies and their often delicate accompaniments summon up a languorous and enchanting imagined world.