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Program Notes for Appalachian Spring

Feb 19 - 20






The Unanswered Question




Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 41
       Presto in moto perpetuo






Suite from Appalachian Spring   




Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront




The Unanswered Question

Timing: approx. 8 min.
Instrumentation: 4 flutes, trumpet, strings


The CSO has performed this work on three previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in January of 1959, Max Rudolf conducting, and the most recent in February of 2004, Paavo Järvi conducting. 

Ives was born in Danbury, CT on October 20, 1874; he died in New York on May 19, 1954. He composed The Unanswered Question in 1906 and revised it in 1927 and again in the early 1930s. Theodore Bloomfield conducted the Juilliard Orchestra in the first performance at Columbia University in New York on May 11, 1946. 

After graduating from Yale in 1898, Ives moved to New York, took up lodging with some former Yale students in a suite they dubbed “Poverty Flat,” and began a job as a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company. The young man had majored in music, but he was concerned about his musical future, since his professors had often criticized his compositions for their unorthodoxy. “If [a composer] has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let the children starve on his dissonances?” he had written. Although it would be many years before he had a nice wife and child, Ives decided to pursue a career in the insurance business and to relegate his composing to his spare time.

From a practical standpoint, Ives’s decision was right. In 1900, as biographer Jan Swafford points out, even the music of Brahms was considered difficult and modern, and that of Wagner was thought to be outlandish. What would audiences have thought of Ives’s radical new conceptions of music, had they heard his compositions?

But audiences never heard the path-breaking music of Ives until decades later—long after ill health had forced him to stop composing. Instead of trying for commercial success as a composer, Ives made his livelihood in the insurance world, where he was extremely successful. His music was unknown to all but a few of his friends. He knew that his compositions would be incomprehensible to most listeners, and he also understood that a composer would not be respected in polite society. As a newspaper observed in 1915, “Music is not generally regarded as a profession for men. Men go into business; they become brokers, lawyers, or politicians…but not musicians. Music is still par excellence the avocation of long-haired libidinous foreigners.”

Throughout his first decade in New York, which ended with his 1908 marriage to Harmony Twitchell, Ives led a double life. He rose quickly in his insurance company, until its collapse in 1906, whereupon the composer and his friend and colleague Julian Myrick formed their own company. Ives and Myrick, Inc., eventually became the most successful insurance agency in the United States. At the same time that he was pouring his energies into getting his new company off the ground, Ives was creating some of the most unusual music the world would ever know. So strange were these pieces that Ives referred to them as “studies,” not as “compositions.”

At a time when Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky, and Bartók—composers completely unknown to Ives in 1906—were still writing rather traditional music, Ives set out to create a series of frankly experimental works. The composer characterized these pieces “as kinds [of] studies, or rather trying out sounds, beats, etc., usually by what is called politely ‘improvisation on the keyboard’—what classmates in [Poverty F]lat called ‘resident disturbances.’” In these experiments Ives anticipated many of the innovations of subsequent composers, who became known as avant-gardists while his scores still lay unperformed and unknown.

KEYNOTE. The originality of the best known of these works, The Unanswered Question, lies in the way Ives separated his orchestra into three distinct groups: sustained strings, solo trumpet, and jaggedly contrapuntal winds. Each of these groups plays its own music at its own tempo; precise coordination between the groups is not indicated. Each group has not only its own characteristic color, texture, and tempo but also its own distinct musical style. Perhaps the greatest originality of this music is that there is no attempt to unify the three diverse types of music. Rather, The Unanswered Question seems to enjoy its disparity of styles and its outright disunity.

Biographer Swafford offers the following description of this most unusual and forward-looking piece:

Here is music utterly unlike anything before Ives, made of three planes that have little audibly to do with one another. Each layer has its own texture and instrumentation and style, their juxtapositions only loosely controlled: a background of strings playing almost inaudibly a slow-cycling, mysterious sequence made up of traditional chords but elusive in tonality; periodically, six times over this background, a solo trumpet intones the same cryptic, unmistakable questioning phrase. After each of these questions a group of flutes lurches into a response, each time getting more frenzied, dissonant, and apparently desperate. Finally the trumpet poses the Question once more and evokes only the strings fading into silence. This “cosmic drama,” as Ives called it, lasts under five minutes.

Ives himself offered a description of this “Contemplation of a Serious Matter,” as he subtitled the work:

The strings represent—“The Silences of the Druids—who Know, See, and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet intones—“The Perennial Question of Existence,” and states it in the same tone of voice each time. But the hunt becomes gradually more active, faster and louder through an animando to a con fuoco.… The “Fighting Answerers,” as time goes on and after a “secret conference,” seem to realize a futility, and begin to mock “The Question”—the strife is over for the moment. After they disappear, “The Question” is asked for the last time, and the “Silences” are heard beyond in “Undisturbed Solitude.”

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14

Timing: approx. 25 min.
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, snare drum, piano, strings


The CSO has performed this work on eight previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in April of 1978, Leonard Slatkin conducting, Jaime Laredo, violinist, and the most recent in April of 2013, Jakub Hrůša conducting, Sarah Chang, violinist. The CSO also performed this work under the direction of Jesús López-Cobos on its 1995 tour of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Canary Islands, with violinist Alyssa Park.

Barber was born on March 9, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania; he died in New York on January 23, 1981. He began the Violin Concerto in the summer of 1939 and completed it in 1940. It was first performed by Albert Spalding and The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy on February 7, 1941. 

Acknowledgement of Barber’s talents began soon after his graduation from the Curtis Institute of Music, which he had entered at the age of 14 to study composition, piano, conducting and voice. Recognition took the form of commissions (such as that from a wealthy businessman for the Violin Concerto), performances (by The Cleveland Orchestra and by Arturo Toscanini) and prizes. The Bearns Prize, the Prix de Rome and the Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship enabled Barber to have several extended residencies in Europe, where he studied and composed intensively.

During one of these periods abroad Barber began the Violin Concerto. It was 1939, and he was spending the summer in the village of Sils-Maria in Switzerland, far from the mounting threat of world war. The concerto had been commissioned for a young violinist by a wealthy merchant from Barber’s native Philadelphia. Progress was slow, and thus the composer took his unfinished manuscript with him when he moved to Paris in the fall. No sooner had he arrived in the French capital, however, than all Americans were warned to leave Europe, as German troops were invading Poland. Barber sailed for New York with the concerto still unfinished.

Commissioning of music by wealthy individuals is the 20th-century equivalent of the 18th century’s patronage by the aristocracy: someone of means thinks enough of a composer’s work to pay for the creation of a new piece. Even the most generous of commissions usually just barely covers the costs of preparing a piece for performance, with a small amount added in for the composer’s time. Nonetheless, for a freelance composer (such as Barber was in 1939), commissions are an important source of income. Terms vary, but usually the composer receives a fee and the patron gets first performance rights and usually the dedication, plus of course the satisfaction of knowing that he or she was directly responsible for the creation and performance of what is hoped will be a major work.

Barber entered into a contract for the violin concerto in good faith. The Philadelphia merchant, on the other hand, did not. He acted quite unprofessionally. Barber’s biographer Nathan Broder chose to protect the guilty by withholding the names of the merchant and the violinist. Neither deserves the safety of anonymity. In his 1985 bio-bibliography of the composer, musicologist Don A. Hennessee names the culprits: Samuel Fels and Iso Briselli. It would be nice to think that they were ultimately chagrined by their scandalous behavior, since Barber’s concerto is an important composition that has been performed successfully by a number of violinists and orchestras.

What happened was this: Barber showed violinist Briselli the first two movements when they were finished. The soloist was disappointed because they were not sufficiently virtuosic. Barber explained that he was reserving the bravura for the finale. When that movement was complete, Briselli pronounced it unplayable. The sponsor, Fels, demanded that the composer return the commissioning fee. Barber replied that he had already spent the money while he was living in Europe without a steady income. Barber then asked another violinist—Herbert Baumel—to play the finale in the presence of Briselli, Fels and several witnesses. Baumel did so after a few hours of practice, readily demonstrating that the work had sufficient virtuosity and was quite within the realm of possibility. Barber and Fels worked out a compromise—the composer returned half of the fee and Briselli relinquished all claims on the right of first performance.

Barber had been treated shabbily. He had worked diligently on the concerto for well over a year, and he had exactly upheld his side of the bargain. When someone commissions a work, he or she chooses a composer whose musical judgment he or she trusts. There is then an implied obligation to accept the work the composer writes as long as it fulfills any mutually agreed upon stipulations. By the time Barber wrote his later concertos (for flute, oboe and trumpet in 1944, for cello in 1945 and for piano in 1962), he was a renowned composer who no longer had to be subjected to the whims of ignorant performers and devious patrons.

KEYNOTE. The concerto was premiered by still another violinist, Albert Spalding. When people heard the work, they were struck by the stylistic differences between the first two and the last movements. The consonant lyricism of the earlier parts is replaced by a more angular dissonance in the finale. It then seemed that Barber was turning away from his conservative tonal style toward a more experimental idiom, but in retrospect it appears more that he was expanding his range of expression to include the aggressive alongside the gentle. He never stopped writing lyrical music.

It was tempting to understand the dissonances in the third movement as a response to the war. Perhaps critics were subliminally influenced by knowledge of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, in which two dissonant movements follow two consonant ones. Stravinsky attributed his symphony’s change of style in part to the war. Listening to Barber’s concerto today, we hear only an integrated work. The differences between the movements no longer seem enormous, and the idea that the war might have provoked a change of style in the work of a composer who never personally experienced the horrors of armed combat seems naïve.

The first movement is quite traditional. It is unabashedly tonal and thoroughly lyrical. It is cast in a sonata form based on two themes—a long line introduced at the very beginning by the solo instrument and a perky figure first heard in the clarinet. Notice the use of the piano, a rare instrument in the orchestra of a violin concerto. It plays the very first chord and is then silent until the second theme. The biting, non-blending sound of the piano cuts through the orchestra so that we always know whether or not it is playing; it is thus a major source of contrast in the concerto.

The lyricism of the first movement expands in the second, which is based on a beautifully arching long line. The finale, by contrast, is a fast moto perpetuo. For almost the entire movement someone—usually the soloist—plays an unending chain of triplets. Considerable drive and energy are built up in this way. The few places where the triplet obsession is broken are refreshing, if not surprising—the second statement of the second theme (in flute and bassoon, accompanied by snare drum and low piano), the accelerando of the triplets to 16th notes in the coda and the dramatic fermata where, just before the end, the music seems to pause momentarily for a final gasp of breath.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Suite from Appalachian Spring

Timing: approx. 24 min.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, snare drum, orchestra bells, triangle, xylophone, claves, wood block, bass drum, suspended cymbals, tabor, harp, piano, strings


The CSO has performed this work on eight previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in October of 1945, Eugene Goossens conducting, and the most recent in October of 2009, William Eddins conducting. The CSO also performed this work under the direction of Jesús López-Cobos on its 1995 tour of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Canary Islands.

Copland was born on November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York; he died December 2, 1990, in New York. He composed Appalachian Spring in 1943–1944 as a ballet for Martha Graham, who first performed it with her company at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on October 30, 1944. Copland expanded the original instrumentation from 13 players to full orchestra when he made a condensed version in 1945 (the Suite heard this weekend).

Like most composers of his generation, Aaron Copland was at first excited by the dissonant harmonies and jagged rhythms that he heard in the 1920s. But he was also concerned about the inaccessibility of modern music. He preferred to create a musical language that was essentially American, in order to speak directly to an American audience. At first he tried to incorporate elements of jazz into his symphonic works, but with only limited success. A more drastic approach was needed. Therefore, in the late 1930s, the composer deliberately turned his back on his earlier dissonant style. He created a series of simple, straightforward, largely consonant works.

During these years I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer. The old “special” public of the modern music concerts had fallen away, and the conventional concert public continued to be apathetic or indifferent to anything but the established classics. It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum. Moreover, an entirely new public for music had grown up around the radio and phonograph. It made no sense to ignore them and to continue writing as if they did not exist. I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.

Thus was born Copland’s aesthetic of musical populism. He realized that the communications media had vastly increased the size, but not the sophistication, of the music-listening public. He felt that the way to reach this large audience was to make music not only for concerts but also for radio, movies, records and ballets. His populist style used such items of Americana as cowboy songs, Latin-American rhythms, folksongs and New England and Shaker hymns. The resulting music was as immediate as it was simple. It is probably only a coincidence, but surely an interesting one, that the crowning achievement of Copland’s musical populism—the ballet Appalachian Spring—includes (in its next to last section) a set of various on a Shaker hymn tune that praises simplicity:

‘Tis the gift to be simple,
‘Tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down
Where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves
In the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of Love and Delight.

Despite its direct appeal, Appalachian Spring is realized with consummate skill and subtlety, so that its simplicity is not trivialized. It typifies the philosophy of many American composers from the 1930s and 1940s: “We wanted to find a music that would speak of universal things in a vernacular of American speech rhythms. We wanted to write music on a level that left popular music far behind—music with a largeness of utterance wholly representative of the country that Whitman had envisaged.”

The music Copland wrote for Martha Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring reflects his desire to create a non-elitist music, a music that expresses the experiences and visions of an American artist. Several years earlier he had written: “The conviction grew inside me that the two things that seemed always to have been so separate in America—music and the life about me—must be made to touch. This desire to make the music I wanted to write come out of the life I had lived in America became a preoccupation.”

The immediacy of Appalachian Spring is evident right from the beginning. The first section, and many subsequent passages as well, uses a technique sometimes called “pandiatonicism.” All seven notes of a particular key (in this case A major) are freely combined in traditional and non-traditional ways, but the other five notes of the chromatic scale are studiously avoided. The resulting sound is open and consonant without being much like traditional tonal music, in which notes foreign to the prevailing key invariably appear sooner or later.

The rhythms of Appalachian Spring are as direct and engaging as its pandiatonic harmonies. Sometimes their vitality comes from clever irregularities, but often Copland’s means are simpler: repeatedly coming to rest on the fourth beat of a measure in one section, or interruptions by silences of varying length in other places.

The composer explained the relationship of this music to the folksong tradition of the Shakers:

Appalachian Spring is generally thought to be folk inspired. But…the Shaker tune “‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple” is the only folk material I actually quoted in the piece. Rhythms and melodies that suggest a certain American ambience…and the use of specific folk themes…are, after all, not quite the same thing.

You know, Appalachian Spring took me about a year to finish, and it was originally scored for only 13 players. I remember thinking how crazy it was to spend all that time, because I knew how short-lived most ballets and their scores are. But the suite for symphony orchestra that I derived from Appalachian Spring was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 and took on a life of its own. Actually, it had a lot to do with bringing my name before a wider public.

According to Graham, the ballet concerns the following:

…a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.

By 1943 Martha Graham was recognized as the country’s leading modern dance choreographer, but she had not yet created a dance to original music. Thanks to the generosity of arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Graham was able to commission a score from Copland. She decided to base the ballet on the childhood memories of her 90-year-old grandmother, who had spent most of her life on a Pennsylvania farm. The music was completed long before Copland learned the title Graham had chosen. He found out only just prior to the premiere that she had selected the name of the dance (and hence of his piece) from a poem by Hart Crane.

The premiere took place at the Library of Congress, where many works commissioned with funds provided by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge found their first audiences. The concert was a special 80th-birthday tribute to the lady who had made a tremendous impact on contemporary American music. As World War II was still raging, everything brought into the Library of Congress had to be inspected. Graham’s costumes, iron, ironing board and dress were thoroughly searched for bombs.

The performance was a complete success. Copland subsequently made a concert suite from the ballet, which was recorded by conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Because it was this recording that first brought Copland’s music to a wide audience, Appalachian Spring fulfilled the composer’s ideal of a music of and for the American people disseminated to them through the media of the phonograph and radio.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront

Timing: approx. 11 min.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani, large tam-tam, snare drum, triangle, xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, wood block, bass drum, small tam-tam, chimes, cymbals, 3 tuned drums, harp, piano, strings


These are the first CSO subscription performances of the On the Waterfront Suite. Three previous performances included concerts at Riverbend, including in 1994 under Marvin Hamlisch, and a special Pops concert in November of 1965 under Skitch Henderson.

Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918, and died in New York City on October 14, 1990. He composed the score for Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront in 1954; the symphonic suite drawn from the film was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Bernstein’s direction at the Tanglewood Music Center on August 11, 1955.

Leonard Bernstein wrote only one original film score in his life, but it was for a movie that is still counted among the 100 greatest masterpieces of cinematic history. On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan (1909–2003), won eight Academy Awards. Bernstein’s score, along with three supporting actors, “only” received an Oscar nomination; yet the eminent Austrian-British music critic Hans Keller declared it to be “about the best film score to have come out of America.” Kazan’s courageous film, based on true reportage from the New York Sun, was about dock workers in New Jersey whose labor union was controlled by the mob. Much of the plot revolved around the question as to whether one should remain “D and D” (deaf and dumb) or speak up against crime and injustice; the social message was very strong and the cast, with Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in two of the leading roles, was legendary.

Bernstein had turned down several invitations to write film scores, and it took all the persuasive powers of producer Sam Spiegel to get him to accept this project. In a special clause that was rarely included in Hollywood contracts, Bernstein was granted exclusive rights to an orchestral suite that he might derive from the film score. In that form, Bernstein was able to develop his musical material with full artistic autonomy. The word “suite” usually suggests a succession of several short movements, but Bernstein’s suite is in reality a well-integrated single-movement tone poem based on a small number of themes undergoing extensive transformations.

The music captures both the brutality of the fighting and the romance between longshoreman Terry Malloy (Brando) and Edie Doyle (Saint), the sister of another dock worker who is killed by the mob at the beginning of the film. The suite opens with an unaccompanied horn melody which will be heard, in various transformations, several times in the course of the piece. Bernstein described this theme as “a quiet representation of the tragic nobility that underlies the surface crudity and violence of the main character.” This introduction is interrupted by a “Presto barbaro,” with a jazzy saxophone theme accompanied by a particularly ferocious percussion battery, suggesting great violence. Then, in another abrupt musical scene change, the love theme is introduced; we hear a haunting saxophone solo followed by a lyrical duet between the flute and the harp. Finally, the violent music returns and the suite ends on a highly dramatic note.

According to Bernstein’s biographer Burton Humphrey, “On the Waterfront can be seen as a 20th-century equivalent of Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet, with the film’s principal characters, Terry and Edie, as the star-crossed lovers.”

—Peter Laki