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Ravel's La Valse


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Program Notes


FRI FEB 16, 8 pm • SAT FEB 17, 8 pm

LOUIS LANGRÉE conductor • JEFFREY KAHANE piano 

PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Symphony No. 1, Op. 25,  Classical

• Allegro con brio

• Larghetto

• Gavotte: Non troppo allegro

• Finale: Molto vivace

RAVEL (1875–1937)

Concerto in G Major for Piano and Orchestra

• Allegramente: Andante; Tempo I

• Adagio assai

• Presto

INTERMISSION

STRAVINSKY (1882–1971)

Divertimento from Le Baiser de la fée (“The Fairy’s Kiss”)

• Sinfonia

• Danses suisses

• Scherzo

• Pas de deux

RAVEL

La valse (“The Waltz”)

 


Symphony No. 1, Op. 25, Classical

Born: April 23, 1891, Sontzovka, Ekaterinoslav, Russia | Died: March 5, 1953, Moscow

Work composed: composed during the summer of 1917, but also uses music composed the previous year; completed Sept. 10, 1917.

Premiere: April 21, 1918, Petrograd; Prokofiev led the Former Court Orchestra

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

CSO notable performances: 14 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: January 1930 Fritz Reiner conducting | Most recent: December 2008, Giancarlo Guerrero conducting | This work has also been a popular choice for the CSO’s community and educational concerts.

Duration: approx. 15 minutes

Like all Russians, Prokofiev was affected by the Russian Revolution of 1917. He was living in Petrograd, where anyone in the street might become a target of soldiers’ bullets. More than once he found himself diving for cover. One day he composed a piece while crouching behind a wall to avoid being shot. There was an attempt to draft him into the army, but, thanks to the intervention of writer Maxim Gorky, the composer was excused.

He decided to spend the summer of 1917 away from the dangers of war in a small village near Petrograd. He purposefully chose a residence without a piano. Up to that time he had almost always composed at the keyboard, but he had lately begun to suspect that his fingers were a limitation to his imagination. He decided that the best way to write a piece away from the piano was to compose for a medium that does not include the piano and yet uses a familiar style:

Haydn’s technique had become especially clear to me after my studies with [composer Nikolai] Tcherepnin, and in that familiar channel it was, I felt, much easier to venture into dangerous waters without the piano. It seems to me that, had Haydn continued to live into our time, he would have retained his own way of writing and at the same time added something “new.”…I wanted to compose a symphony in a classical style, and as soon as I began to progress in my work, I christened it the Classical Symphony, first because it sounded much more simple and second out of pure mischief—”to tease the geese,” in secret hope that eventually the symphony would become a classic.

The third movement, a gavotte, had already been composed the previous year. Prokofiev also already had sketches for the first two movements. It did not, therefore, take him long to finish the symphony even without the aid of a piano.

Petrograd remained an armed camp. Nonetheless, the composer gave three concerts there the following spring. On the third he conducted the Classical Symphony. The Soviet Commissioner for Education was in the audience, and Prokofiev was banking on the conservative symphony’s making a favorable impression. The composer was eager to further his career abroad, and he had applied for a passport to America. The Commissar had the power to grant or deny this request. He was perplexed that Prokofiev should want to leave Russia at the beginning of a new social and political age. But Prokofiev was apolitical, as indifferent to the Soviets as he had been to the Czarist aristocracy. He was interested in furthering his career. A few days after the concert, the Commissar told the composer, “You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But I shan’t stand in your way if you want to go to America.”

The Commissar was convinced that Prokofiev would soon be disillusioned by life in a capitalist country. He was not wrong. After a difficult journey involving 18 consecutive days on an overcrowded train with little food and inadequate sanitation, the composer made the long journey across the Pacific. He arrived in San Francisco carrying with him several scores, including the Classical Symphony. He was detained and interrogated for three days on Angel Island. The authorities were suspicious of any “Bolshevik.” The composer finally was allowed into the country, and he traveled to New York, where he found little interest in new music. He failed to secure a performance for the symphony. He played it for Walter Damrosch, conductor for the New York Symphony, who turned pages at the wrong time and then compared it to a symphony by the second-rate Russian composer Vasily Kalinnikov. Prokofiev was furious. Only later did he learn that Damrosch actually liked Kalinnikov’s music and had meant the comparison as a compliment. Prokofiev played a few recitals, and he had an orchestral performance in Chicago that was unfavorably reviewed: “The red flag of musical anarchy waved tempestuously over the old Orchestra Hall yesterday as Bolshevist melodies floated over the waves of a sea of sound in breathtaking cacophony.”

The composer also had a first-hand experience with American capitalism. He completed his opera Love for Three Oranges on commission from the Chicago Opera. A newspaper article reported:

Florida and California [orange growers] are engaged in a struggle for the exclusive program rights to advertise their respective, favorite brands. The manufacturers of the California Sunkist oranges offer to supply the singers free with the succulent fruit, and the inventor of the Florida blood orange is willing to present one of them to every auditor every evening at the Chicago Opera, if the management will permit him to put up a lobby stand of the Florida bloods and placard it with a sign: “This succulent and healthful brand inspired Prokofiev and is used exclusively by him in this opera and at home.”

The opera performance was postponed a year, and Prokofiev felt he had had enough of this “progressive” country that had no use for his progressive music. Possibly he had had enough oranges as well. He set sail for Paris.

KEYNOTE. If the Classical Symphony had been written a decade later, it could have been called “neo-classic.” It does not anticipate the neo-classic style of the 1920s through ‘40s, but there is a difference between Prokofiev’s use of the past and that of Stravinsky, the leading neo-classicist. The difference is between parody and satire, between humor and wit. Prokofiev’s humor is ironic. Claiming that the symphony was a composition in a style Haydn might have used if he were still alive in 1917, Prokofiev created a subtle burlesque on the music of the classical era. He did not so much delve into the past to find inspiration for the present, as Stravinsky was to do, but rather he poked gentle fun at the past. Prokofiev once wrote about Stravinsky’s neo-classicism:

I could not approve of adopting the idiom of another man and calling it one’s own. Admittedly I had written a Classical Symphony, but that was only a passing phase. In Stravinsky the “Bachism” is becoming the basic form of his music. I love Bach and can see nothing wrong in composing according to his principles, but I don’t think one should write stylized imitations of him. Stravinsky even imagines he is creating a new kind of music.

The Classical Symphony takes forms, melodies, phrase structures and rhythms typical of classicism and twists them in humorous yet graceful ways. We can “hear” a hypothetical original version of the music lurking beneath the surface. In other words, it is as if we could remove the witticisms and discover a truly classical symphony. Prokofiev’s son once remarked that his father first writes music and then “Prokofiev-izes” it. It is certainly possible to imagine such a compositional process producing the Classical Symphony.

This is “wrong-note” music. It is not full of the outrageous mistakes of, for example, Shostakovich’s Age of Gold or Mozart’s A Musical Joke. We smile more than laugh at the quirky turns of phrase and unexpected harmonies, because they are not really wrong. Out of place in a symphony of Mozart or Haydn, in Prokofiev’s hands these “wrong” notes gain an integrity and a rightness appropriate to 1917. They give the symphony its charm and grace.

The piece begins with a two-measure introduction to the main theme. For the first eight measures this theme sounds as if it could almost have been written by Haydn, except for the violins’ quintuplet. But then the theme is repeated a step lower. In a truly classical piece such a repetition would probably take place a step higher, suggesting E minor. Prokofiev’s step lower sends the music into the relatively distant key of C major. The difference is subtle, but it gives the symphony its unmistakably humorous atmosphere.

Other subtleties include the unexpected appearance of one-beat measures, some delightfully sudden modulations in the development section and the clever manner in which the recapitulation arrives. In the symphonies of Haydn, the recapitulation returns to both the main theme and the main key. But here Prokofiev gives a full-blown statement of the theme in the “wrong” key of C major. After eight measures, the repetition is no longer a step lower, as in the exposition, but now, in the more normal manner, a step higher. Thus, by a confluence of witticisms, we arrive back at the home key of D major.

The slow movement presents a lyrical melody in the high violins, after a four-bar introduction. This music is “too high” for an opening statement by Haydn, but the effect is more ethereal than humorous. Some unusual rhythms, plus a middle section that consists of continual short notes, add to the cleverness of this movement.

The third movement’s humor lies primarily in its extreme brevity. In addition, its purposefully clumsy phrases and unexpected twists of harmony create a delightful parody of classical minuets. The fact that this gavotte is in 4/4 time, rather than the standard minuet’s 3/4, adds to the sophistication. The entire middle section takes place over a single, unchanging harmony.

The effervescent finale abounds with subtle harmonic twists, unexpected modulations and clever turns of phrase.

No successful musical joke is merely funny. Beneath the surface of the Classical Symphony lies an elegance and a humanity that go well beyond the work’s gentle mockery. Otherwise, how could we return to it again and again? Once we know a joke’s punch line, we can no longer laugh at it. There is something both enduring and endearing behind the Classical Symphony’s parody of classicism.

—Jonathan D. Kramer

 

Concerto in G Major for Piano and Orchestra

Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses Pyrénées, France Died: December 28, 1937, Paris

Work composed: fall of 1929–fall of 1931

Premiere: January 14, 1932, Paris; Ravel led the Lamoureux Orchestra and pianist Marguerite Long

Instrumentation: solo piano, flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, slapstick, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tamburo, triangle, wood block, harp, strings

CSO notable performances: 17 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: October 1932, Eugene Goossens conducting; Daniel Ericourt, pianist | Most recent: January 2013, Justin Brown conducting; Ingrid Fliter, pianist | Famed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein was pianist and conductor for the CSO’s November 1945 performances of the work (2018 is the Bernstein Centennial year).

Duration: approx. 23 minutes

Ravel was interested in music indigenous to many countries, including Spain, Russia and, starting around 1918 when several jazz musicians began to appear in Parisian clubs, America. European composers were taken with the new harmonies and rhythms they were hearing, and before long Ravel and others were incorporating references to jazz into their compositions. Ravel’s involvement with jazz reached its peak in his two piano concertos, written in 1929–31.

The composer was eager to hear jazz in its authentic setting when he toured the United States in 1927–28. He visited nightclubs in New Orleans and in New York’s Harlem. He was intrigued to learn that jazz had far less impact on concert music here than in Europe. The more removed composers are from a particular culture, the more objective they can be about its music. Ravel discovered that most American classical composers (with a few notable exceptions) were condescending toward jazz, while European composers were fascinated by it. The latter approached it without prejudice but also with only superficial understanding of its social meaning. For Americans, jazz was laden with cultural connotations.

One American composer who both understood and respected jazz was George Gershwin, who was equally at home in the worlds of jazz, popular and symphonic music. He admired Ravel, just as the Frenchman respected Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The two men met during Ravel’s American tour, and they went to Harlem jazz clubs together. Gershwin asked if Ravel would accept him as a student. Ravel replied, “You would only lose the spontaneous quality of your melodies and end up writing bad Ravel.” When he returned to Paris, Ravel began the G Major Piano Concerto, somewhat under the influence (at least in the first movement) of the symphonic jazz in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, composed five years earlier.

While working on his concerto, Ravel received a commission for another piano concerto from Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who had lost his right hand during the war. Ravel worked on the two concertos simultaneously. They are companion pieces, both influenced by jazz, with the G Major showing the bright and the Left Hand Concerto the dark side of the composer’s personality.

Although not a superb pianist, Ravel had planned to perform the GMajor on worldwide tour. Because his health was worsening, however, he instead entrusted the honor of learning the solo part to Marguerite Long, and also he limited the tour to Europe.

The composer wrote that the piece is “a concerto in the truest sense of the word—I mean that it was written in the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects. It has been said of certain great classical concertos that they are written not ‘for’ but ‘against’ the piano. I heartily agree. I had intended to entitle this concerto Divertissement. Then it occurred to me that there was no need to do so, because the very title Concerto should be sufficiently clear.”

KEYNOTE. The jazz influence is most evident in the first movement. Of its five distinct themes, the first (piccolo at the opening) suggests a Basque folk tune, the second (first time the piano plays alone) a Spanish influence, and the remaining three jazz—a blue-note motive in the E-flat clarinet, answered by the trumpet, immediately after the second theme; the subsequent piano solo, with its off-beat accompaniment; the following syncopated melody for piano with occasional sustained chords.

The middle movement, which is devoid of jazz syncopations, was consciously modeled on the slow movement of Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings. Of particular interest is the beautiful extended duet for English horn and piano near the end.

The use of jazz in the finale is more subtle than in the opening movement. It is mingled with suggestions of marches, folk tunes and dances. This movement is lighthearted and brilliant.

The G Major Concerto is a fine instance of Ravel’s delight in the musical surface. He unashamedly embraced superficiality and with it made great art. He was uneasy with profundity. He believed that there is more genuine meaning in the surface sounds of a composition than in the ideas behind them. He lavished great care on his orchestrations, because orchestration is indeed the surface of music. And he was interested in the sounds more than the meanings of exotic music, such as jazz. The concerto is sophisticated, sincere, elegant and subtle, but it is not profound nor does it try to be. It is this lack of pretension—unfortunately rare in 20th-century music—that gives the concerto its youthful innocence (although in actuality it was Ravel’s penultimate composition) and that endears it to us.

—Jonathan D. Kramer

Divertimento from Le Baiser de la fée (“The Fairy’s Kiss”)

Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum near St. Petersburg Died: April 6, 1971, New York City

Work composed: Ballet composed in 1928; the Divertimento is an orchestral suite Stravinsky drew from the ballet score in 1934.

Premiere: November 27, 1928, Paris, by the commissioning ballet company

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, strings

CSO notable performances: Three previous subscription weekends | Premiere: December 1971, Erich Kunzel conducting | Most recent: October 1994, Yuri Temirkanov conducting | Stravinsky led the CSO in music from complete ballet in October 1965.

Duration: approx. 22 minutes

Igor Stravinsky’s love for Tchaikovsky’s music dated from childhood. Stravinsky’s father Fyodor, the leading bass singer of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, had sung in many of Tchaikovsky’s operas, and cherished the signed photograph he had received from the composer after a memorable performance. Young Igor caught one fleeting glimpse of Tchaikovsky at the opera; the image, as he later wrote, “remained in the retina of my memory all my life.”

As a mature composer, Stravinsky continued to value the refinement of Tchaikovsky’s style; his first explicit homage to the 19th-century master was the 1921 opera Mavra, followed seven years later by the ballet Le Baiser de la fée (“The Fairy’s Kiss”).

The work was commissioned by the Russian-born dancer Ida Rubinstein, who was starting a new ballet company in Paris. The production was intended as a tribute to Tchaikovsky on the 35th anniversary of his death. Stravinsky decided to base his score directly on Tchaikovsky’s music, using selections not originally written for orchestra. He started to research Tchaikovsky’s songs and shorter piano works, some of which he had long known and some of which he was just discovering. He treated his sources with a great deal of freedom, often recomposing the themes and placing original motifs in entirely new contexts. The rewriting processes were so complex that in his conversations with Robert Craft 30 years later, Stravinsky no longer remembered whether certain passages were by him or by Tchaikovsky.

For the story of his ballet, Stravinsky turned to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which had earlier inspired him in the opera The Nightingale. He described the Danish writer as a “gentle, sensitive soul whose imaginative mind was wonderfully akin to that of the musician [Tchaikovsky].” His choice fell on one of Andersen’s less well-known stories, “The Ice Maiden” (sometimes translated as “The Snow Queen”), which was set in the high mountains of Switzerland. This detail was particularly important to Stravinsky. As he told Craft, “Le Baiser de la fée probably began as far back as 1895, during my first visit to Switzerland, though I remember I was most fascinated by the English who came to look at the Jungfrau through telescopes.” This image found its way into the first scene of the ballet where Stravinsky imagined “rustic scenes...taking place in a Swiss landscape, with some of the performers dressed in the manner of early tourists and mingling with the friendly villagers.” The mingling of Swiss peasants and foreign tourists seems to correspond to the mixture of two musical styles, those of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

The story, in a nutshell, is about a fairy whose fateful kiss makes a young man disappear from the land of the living; he is transported to a realm “beyond time and place,” portrayed as a home of eternal happiness. The linkage of Eros and Thanatos (love and death) is a quintessentially Romantic idea and, indeed, The Fairy’s Kiss is one of Stravinsky’s most Romantic scores, even though Tchaikovsky’s music is transformed to sound like pure Stravinsky.

KEYNOTE. The four movements of the Divertimento correspond to the four scenes of the original ballet. Although Stravinsky made substantial cuts in each movement, reducing the length of his score by half, all the important musical moments were retained, including the two Tchaikovsky works Stravinsky used in full, both songs for voice and piano: “Lullaby in the Storm” (Op. 54, No. 10), and the well-known “None but the Lonely Heart” (Op. 6, No. 6).

—Peter Laki

La valse (“The Waltz”)

Work composed: December 1919–March 1920, first as a two-piano work and then for orchestra

Premiere: Ravel and Alfredo Casella premiered the piano version in Vienna on October 23, 1920. Camille Chevillard conducted the first orchestral performance with the Lamoureux Orchestra on December 12, 1920, in Paris.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 3 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bells, castanets, crotale, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, 2 harps, strings

CSO notable performances: 17 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: November 1927, Victor de Sabata conducting | Most recent: April 2012, Stéphane Denève conducting | The CSO has recorded this work twice: in 1990 under Jesús López-Cobos and in 2004 under Paavo Järvi.

Duration: approx. 13 minutes

The First World War affected Ravel in a personal way. He had enlisted in the army and several times was nearly killed. His experiences in battle made an everlasting impression on him. In addition, he was devastated by the death of his mother during the war years. Thus, the music he composed right after the war is often quite dark. La valse, for example, is a bittersweet reminiscence of a world that had been destroyed by the War. In 1911, when he composed a different set of waltzes for orchestra (Valses nobles et sentimentales), Ravel could be aloof, almost classical, in his view of the dance music of another age and another culture. But the Vienna of 1920 (where, ironically, Ravel and Alfredo Casella premiered the two-piano version of La valse) had little in common with the imperial Viennese court of 1855.

The way La valse distances itself from its subject exemplifies the objectivity in Ravel’s art. It was typical for him to seek inspiration in another society or another time. He once claimed, “In art sincerity is hateful.” This statement could easily be the composer’s motto, for he always felt the need to hide his feelings behind his music. As a friend once said, “Everything in Ravel proves his wish to obliterate himself and to confide nothing. He would rather be taken for unfeeling than to betray his sentiments.” The composer himself said, “One must have a head and have guts, but never a heart.” He could not tolerate unreserved sentimental effusions or passionate gestures. He was deeply aware of the artifice of musical creation and of the necessary separation between life and art.

Yet Ravel’s music is certainly not cold or insensitive. La valse, an elegy to an opulent way of life that had been destroyed by war, is ample evidence of his capacity for feeling. But the emotions in this music are not an expression of inner passions. Ravel hid his own feelings behind an exaggerated artificiality, behind an objectified interpretation of emotion in general. He did not so much remove personal expression from his music as camouflage it behind an effortless perfection and an almost indifferent politeness.

The objectivity of La valse is evident even in its title. “The definite article,” writes critic Paul Griffiths, “is crucial. This is not just a waltz: it is a waltz about waltzing, a waltz that waltzes around itself, which may account for the frenzy to which it mounts until a momentary burst of quadruple time, coming after so much Viennese 3/4, administers the coup de grâce.

The emotional trials of the war, plus deteriorating health, had made it impossible for Ravel to compose for several years. The stimulus to return to work came in the form of a commission from Russian ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev. He asked Ravel for a short ballet to share the program with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Ravel complied by writing La valse. When the composer played the piano version for Diaghilev, the impresario called it a masterpiece. “But it is not a ballet. It is only the portrait of a ballet.” Diaghilev could not see any choreographic possibilities in the music. He felt he could not work with a composition that was this far removed from its subject matter, that was so objectified, so artificial. Ravel never forgave Diaghilev. La valse was performed in concert version a few months later, and it was eventually produced as a ballet a decade later by Ida Rubinstein.

La valse contains every element of a Strauss waltz except its gaiety. Instead, there is a sinister atmosphere that becomes frenzied by the end. The composer said of the piece, “I feel that this work is a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.” An inscription at the head of the score reads:

Flashes of lightning in turbulent clouds reveal a couple waltzing. One by one the clouds vanish; a huge ballroom filled by a circling mass is revealed. The scene gradually becomes illuminated. The light of chandeliers bursts forth. An imperial court about 1855.

To his friend Maurice Emmanuel, Ravel wrote:

Some people have discovered in it an intention of parody, even of caricature, while others plainly have seen a tragic allusion—end of the Second Empire, state of Vienna after the war, etc.… Tragic, yes, it can be that like any expression—pleasure, happiness—which is pushed to extremes. You should see in it only what comes from the music: a mounting volume of sound.

—Jonathan D. Kramer