FROM THE SEAS TO THE HEAVENS
4.30.16 │ Tsai Performance Center │8 p.m.
Spectre of the Spheres (2014)
This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless.
His head is air. Beneath his tip at night,
Eyes open and fix on us in every sky.
Or is this another wriggling out of the egg,
Another image at the end of the cave,
Another bodiless for the body’s slough?
This is where the serpent lives. This is his nest,
These fields, these hills, these tinted distances,
And the pines above and along and beside the sea.
This is form gulping after formlessness,
Skin flashing to wished-for disappearances
And the serpent body flashing without the skin. . . .
—From Wallace Stevens, “The Auroras of Autumn” (1948)
In the opening stanzas of “The Auroras of Autumn” (the poem from which my work’s title is drawn), Stevens uses the image of a serpent thrashing after having shed its skin, glimmering and flashing as if possessed, as a metaphor for the majestic beauty of the Northern Lights. I found this idea, of something primordial that is at once terrifying and arrestingly beautiful, to be a very poignant one, and one ripe for musical expression. With Spectre of the Spheres I sought to create something that moves and breathes like the mystical and unfettered Aurora, with a reckless vitality, inexorably, and of its own accord.
Violin Concerto (1935)
Alban Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and, along with Anton Webern, a member of the Second Viennese School of composition. Schoenberg and his followers proposed to take music beyond tonality—that is, beyond the traditional Western system of harmony based on keys and scales—by the use of serial or twelve-tone techniques, which give equal importance to all twelve half-tones in the octave. The resulting music, often rigorously mathematical in its construction, was intellectually exhilarating but initially found little favor with most listeners outside the musical avant-garde. So Berg was quite surprised when he was approached in 1934 by Louis Krasner, and American violinist, with a commission for a violin concerto—a signature musical form of the nineteenth century and perhaps the ultimate expression of the traditional musical values that the serialists wished to transcend.
Berg initially tried to decline the commission, as he was deeply involved in the composition of his major opera Lulu. But the combination of financial necessity (Berg and his musical associates were out of favor with the newly established Nazi powers in Germany and their followers in Austria) and Krasner’s persuasiveness led him to agree to take it on. In April 1935 Berg learned of the death of Manon Gropius, the lovely and talented eighteen-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler (Gustav Mahler’s widow) and the architect Walter Gropius. She had contracted polio the previous year and had suffered greatly in her last months. The concerto became a requiem “to the memory of an angel,” and Berg took up the challenge of portraying the struggle between life and death, between earth and heaven, in a work that reconciles very disparate musical materials.
The concerto is constructed on the basis of a tone row, an ordering of the twelve pitches in the half-tone scale. The sequence of tones that Berg chose contains the four pitches of the open strings of the violin—the first notes played by the soloist—as well as the first four notes of J. S. Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug,” itself a reflection on death, resignation, and transcendence. The first movement opens with the orchestra and the violin meditating on the notes of the open strings, out of which the violin develops a portrait of the young Manon, using the tune of a Carinthian folksong and other music in characteristic Viennese triple meters. The second movement begins with an outcry that travels across the orchestra, against which the solo violin struggles. Soon an ominous tango-like rhythm starts up in the orchestra and gradually overtakes the solo part. After the moment of highest tension, the soloist enters with the melody of the Bach chorale, whose text Berg wrote into the score: “It is enough! . . . Goodnight now, O world! I’m going to my heavenly home . . . my great distress will stay below.” The woodwinds take up the chorale in Bach’s original harmonization, while the solo violin and other instruments interpolate scraps of the Viennese tunes from the first movement. Gradually the earthly elements drop away as the solo line leads the other violins upward and then continues its ascent, supported by other solo string voices. At the very end, the notes of the open strings of the violin are heard once more.
This concerto, which had unexpectedly become a memorial for Manon Gropius, became one for its composer as well. Just days after completing the orchestration, Berg suffered an insect sting that became infected and led to his death of septicemia in December 1935. The first performance of the concerto in Barcelona the following April, with Louis Krasner as soloist, was dedicated to his memory. The work went on to be recognized as one of the greatest concertos of the twentieth century, a composition that touches on the musical controversies of its time as well as on the larger mysteries of the human condition.
The Oceanides (1913–14)
The Oceanides of Jean Sibelius (Aallottaret in Finnish) is named after the nymphs in Greek mythology who lived in the Mediterranean Ocean. Its original title, Rondeau der Wellen (Rondo of the Waves), will provide us a clue to the form of this mighty work that fills about ten minutes of concert time. Its two themes accordingly recur thus: ABA1B1CA2 + short coda, a form in which section C represents a developmental intensification of those themes and which builds to a dramatic climax before Theme A makes its last statement (A2) as a calm reminiscence.
The opening of the work, gently sustained in D major by strings and tympani roll, brings us to Theme A, stated by two flutes and playfully spun out. Theme B, introduced by solo clarinet while the two harps play an upward glissando, is in triple meter, briefer, and in slower note values with the support of deeper harmonies. Indeed, our opening theme, in its A1 guise, soon reappears in the flutes and is considerably expanded and reworked before Theme B1 retakes the flow into the stormier waters of our C material. The mighty climax follows, giving way to the final A2 and the peaceful ending.
Whether one considers this work as Impressionistic in the manner of Debussy’s La Mer of 1905 or more in the spirit of post-romanticism, its traits belonging distinctly to Sibelius include an overall form that resists classical designs; a related blurring of the borderlines by which listeners can identify where sections begin and end; overall form best described as a series of cycles or waves; melodies we can identify, but which melt into the background by being spun out indefinitely or presented only fragmentarily; melodic woodwind passages harmonized in thirds; and moods intensely evocative of nature and its omnipresence.
The Oceanides answered a commission from America in which the composer Horatio Parker of Yale University played an influential role, and its premiere took place on June 4, 1914, at the Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut, with Sibelius conducting. The newfound recognition during his trip to America provided Sibelius with necessary encouragement during a critical time in which he was seeking his own role within a modernity (especially that of Schoenberg) that both attracted and repelled him, after the composition of his own experimental Fourth Symphony of 1911.
—Raymond H. Rosenstock
Symphony in D (Symphony No. 6) (2015)
Symphony in D is in three movements lasting around a half-hour. The first movement begins dark and stormy and gradually clears out and rises in register. Then a storm begins again and is taken over by the brass; this storm ends suddenly and is followed by a brief oboe solo, and a coda of little sparkles, like brief snow flurries. Through the course of the entire movement there are long pedal points that get gradually higher. The second movement is a slow movement featuring a lot of solos for the winds. This movement, too, starts dark and brightens into more open textures. The finale is a scherzo, finally lifting the veil of seriousness of the first two movements, and ribbons of music in the winds interact with the snow sparkles of the first movement. After a bit of furious music in the middle, the energy dissipates, builds, and dissipates again, leading to a return that is suddenly cut short by an English horn solo. The solo is capped off by a shower of sparkles and another build, finally leaving space for the English horn to finish.
The Symphony in D was commissioned by the New England Philharmonic and was mostly written at the MacDowell Colony in the first two months of 2015, as eight feet of snow was falling.
About the Composers
Hailed as “opulently gifted” (Opera News) and “utterly original” (The New York Times), the music of David Hertzberg (b. 1990, Los Angeles) is swiftly garnering recognition, with recent seasons seeing performances at the festivals of Aspen, Tanglewood, and Santa Fe, and on the stages of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and Carnegie Hall.
Highlights of his 2015–16 season include new works for violinist In Mo Yang and pianist Steven Lin, both of which will premiere on the Concert Artists Guild series at Carnegie Hall, as well as a large-scale concert work for New York City Opera, to be premiered at Lincoln Center in the spring. He was also appointed Composer in Residence for Opera Philadelphia and Music-Theatre Group, a post that he will hold for the next three seasons. Other upcoming projects include a one-act opera for Opera Philadelphia’s Double Exposure program this spring, and new work for the American Composers Orchestra, to be premiered at Carnegie Hall on their 2016–17 season.Recent engagements include works for sopranos Julia Bullock and Jennifer Zetlan, pianists Ursula Oppens and Steven Lin, cellist Jay Campbell, and ensembles including the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Kansas City Symphony, the American Composers Orchestra, the New England Philharmonic, the Julliard Orchestra, the New Julliard Ensemble, the Curtis Orchestra, the PRISM Quartet, the Flux Quartet, the Dover Quartet, and the New Fromm Players.
Among his recent distinctions are a Fromm Commission from Harvard University, the Underwood Emerging Composer Commission from the American Composers Orchestra, the inaugural Catherine Doctorow Prize from Gotham Chamber Opera, a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an Aaron Copland Award from Copland House, the William Schuman Prize and Carlos Surinach Commission from BMI, two ASCAP Morton Gould Awards, a Jerome Fund Commission from the American Composers Forum, and the Arthur Friedman Prize from the Juilliard School.
He has received fellowships from Yaddo, IC Hong Kong, and the Tanglewood Music Center, and served as Composer in Residence for Young Concert Artists, a post which he held from 2012 to 2015.
David began his musical studies in violin, piano, and composition at the Colburn School and received his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees with distinction from the Juilliard School, where he studied with Samuel Adler. At his commencement, he was awarded the John Erskine Prize for outstanding artistic achievement throughout the course of his studies. He holds an Artist Diploma from The Curtis Institute of Music.
David Rakowski, the NEP’s Composer in Residence since 2011, was born and raised in St. Albans, Vermont, where he played trombone in high school and community bands, and keyboards in a mediocre rock band called the Silver Finger. Early musical challenges included taking pop songs off the radio for his band to play. He was his high school class’s valedictorian and its Best Thespian.
He received his musical training at New England Conservatory, Princeton, and Tanglewood, where he studied with Robert Ceely, John Heiss, Milton Babbitt, Paul Lansky, Peter Westergaard, and Luciano Berio. He spent the four years after graduate school not writing his dissertation, holding down dismal part-time word processing jobs, and helping to run the Griffin Music Ensemble in Boston. At the end of those four years, he took a running leap into academia with a one-year appointment at Stanford University. Seven years later, he finished his dissertation.
Rakowski’s most widely traveled music is his collection of one hundred highly varied and high-energy piano études; these pieces approach the idea of etude from many different angles, be they technical, conceptual, compositional, or stylistic; many of them may be viewed on YouTube. He is now at work on a set of piano préludes and has finished fifty-seven of a projected one hundred. He has also written six symphonies, nine concertos, three large wind ensemble pieces, a sizable collection of chamber and vocal music, as well as incidental music and music for children.
Rakowski’s awards include the Rome Prize, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the 2006 Barlow Prize, and the 2004–6 Elise L. Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, as well as awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Tanglewood Music Center, BMI, Columbia University, the Orleans International Piano Competition (the Chevillion-Bonnaud composition prize), the International Horn Society, and various artist colonies. He is the only composer ever to be commissioned both by Speculum Musicæ and the “President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band. He has also been commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Sequitur, Network for New Music, Koussevitzky Music Foundation (with Ensemble 21 in 1996 and with Boston Modern Orchestra Project in 2006), Collage New Music, the Kaufman Center/Merkin Hall, Boston Musica Viva, the Fromm Foundation (twice), Dinosaur Annex, the Crosstown Ensemble, the Riverside Symphony, Parnassus, The Composers Ensemble, Alea II, Alea III, Triple Helix, and others. In 1999 his Persistent Memory, commissioned by Orpheus, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, and in 2002 his Ten of a Kind, commissioned by “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has been composer-in-residence at the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival, Guest Composer at the Wellesley Composers Conference, the Karel Husa Distinguished Professor of Music at the Ithaca College School of Music, and a Master Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, as well as with the New England Philharmonic. His music is published by C. F. Peters, is recorded on New World/CRI, Innova, Americus, Albany, Ravello, New Focus, ECM, Blue Griffin, Centaur, Capstone, BMOP/sound and Bridge, and has been performed worldwide. Pending CD releases include a fourth volume of piano études on Bridge, and a second orchestral CD on BMOP/sound. He also contributed a solo piano arrangement of “The Ladies Who Lunch” to the recently released Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano, performed by Anthony de Mare on ECM Recordings. In 2016, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
After his year at Stanford, he taught at Columbia University for six years, and then skipped town, while laughing maniacally, to join the faculty of Brandeis University, where he is now the Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Composition. While at Brandeis, he has also taken part-time appointments teaching at Harvard University (twice) and New England Conservatory (also twice). Now a failed trombonist, he lives in Boston exurbia and in Maine with his wife Beth Wiemann and exactly two cats named Sunset and Camden.