Chautauqua Symphony Notes Week Four

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Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith was born in Hanau, near Frankfurt, Germany, on Nov. 16, 1895, and died in Frankfurt on Dec. 28, 1963. He was an important composer, theorist, teacher and conductor in the early and mid-20th century. He left Nazi Germany in 1940 and settled in the United States, where he taught primarily at Yale University. His “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber” was composed in 1943 and received its premiere in New York on Jan. 20, 1944, with Artur Rodzinski conducting the New York Philharmonic. It is scored for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.

One hearing of this masterpiece of 20th century orchestral music is enough to dispel any notion of its composer being a dry, academic creator, a reputation attributed to his theoretical writings. The “Symphonic Metamorphosis” by Hindemith is easily one of the most appealing, tuneful and inspired works in the repertory.

The work originally was to serve as a ballet score for Léonide Massine, but the choreographer and composer had a falling out and the project came to naught. The music, however, survived in its current orchestral version.

Although its four movements appear to comprise a symphony, its title should be taken literally. Hindemith has created true transformations of relatively obscure melodies by the German Romantic Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826). In doing so, he has created a work greater in scope than the themes themselves would ever suggest.

The opening Allegro is a robust and boisterous affair that reveals the full power of Hindemith’s skill in dealing with a large orchestra. The theme is derived from the fourth of Weber’s Eight Pieces for piano duet, Op. 60. The center of gravity falls to the second movement, Turandot Scherzo. Although the melody is taken from Weber’s overture to a play (“Turandot”) by Schiller (adapted from Gozzi), Weber himself seems to have come across the oriental melody in Rousseau’s dictionary under the article on “Chinese music.”

Opera lovers will, of course, recognize the name of the Chinese princess immortalized in Puccini’s last opera. The first section of Hindemith’s scherzo is cast as a series of variations, while the second part (trio) presents a jazzy metamorphosis of the same melody in fugal treatment. An impressive link featuring the percussion section of the orchestra, with timpani, wood blocks, gong, bells and snare drum used to great effect, brings us back to the style of the beginning.  Again the percussion is used to bring the movement to a close. The lovely and graceful Andantino transforms a theme from Weber’s Six Easy Pieces, Op. 3, Book 2.  Its three-part form features a wonderful countermelody for the solo flute. The last movement is a march.  Hindemith in this case returned to Weber’s Eight Pieces, this time to the seventh piece. The March provides a brilliant and energetic finish to the delightful series of metamorphoses.  Composed in 1943 while Hindemith served on the faculty at Yale University, the “Symphonic Metamorphosis,” along with the symphony derived from the opera Mathis der Maler, has earned this German-born master his enduring place in the symphonic repertory.

Almost Truths and Open Deceptions

Annie Gosfield

Composer Annie Gosfield was born on Sept. 11, 1960, in Philadelphia, and is now based in New York City. Gosfield is the Music Alive: New Partnerships composer-in-residence with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Music Alive: New Partnerships is a national residency program of New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras. According to her official online biography, she “works on the boundaries between notated and improvised music, electronic and acoustic sounds, refined timbres and noise.”

Tonight’s concert by the CSO features the world premiere of the full orchestral version of Annie Gosfield’s concerto for cello titled “Almost Truths and Open Deceptions.” The original chamber version of the work was composed in 2007 and was scored for solo cello, percussion, piano, two violins, viola and contrabass. It was a result of a commission from the Musik3 Foundation, the American Composers Forum and Kauffman Center, with additional funds provided by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust and the Jerome Foundation.

An early review of the original version of the work appeared in The New Yorker, where critic Russell Platt wrote, “Gosfield’s pieces, driven by strong instrumental protagonists, stake their claim to a unique world — she’s a glorious provincial, the Carl Nielsen of Second Avenue.”

Gosfield has kindly provided the following comments:

“The piece originally came to life as a chamber concerto for seven musicians: strings, piano and percussion. The piano part was aggressive, rhythmic and cluster-heavy, so it was a fun challenge to adapt those driving pianoisms to percussive parts for the brass and woodwinds. Naturally there was more to the process than just replacing the piano, such as enhancing many sections, expanding some and creating interplay between winds and strings.

“ ‘Almost Truths and Open Deceptions’ is titled for the almost-unisons (almost truths) that clash and glissando toward a mass of open D strings (open D-ceptions). It is the culmination of several years of working with cellist Felix Fan and getting to know his dynamic playing and unique energy. I used microtones and almost-unisons to enhance the harmonic palette of a piece that includes aggressive, almost out of control tutti sections; mysterious buzzing trills; atmospheric undulating half steps; rough, scratchy timbres; and driving, rhythmic pizzicati.

“ ‘Almost Truths and Open Deceptions’ was initially intended for an orchestra, but our plans changed, so it’s a real joy to finally realize our original goal. I am thrilled to expand this work with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Milanov, and delighted that Felix Fan is bringing his fiery presence and magnetic energy to this performance. Thanks to Deborah Sunya Moore, Felix Fan, Chautauqua Institution, Meet the Composer and the League of American Orchestras for making this Music Alive orchestral residency happen.”

The residency of Annie Gosfield is made possible through Music Alive: New Partnerships, a residency program of New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras. The national program is designed to establish new relationships between composers and orchestras, and to help orchestras present new music to the public and build support for new music within their institutions. Leadership funding for Music Alive is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with additional support from The Aaron Copland Fund for Music and The ASCAP Foundation Bart Howard Fund.

La Mer, Three Symphonic Sketches

Claude Debussy

(Achille-)Claude Debussy was born Aug. 22, 1862, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye (near Paris) and died in Paris on March 25, 1918. Although in a letter of 1908 he rejected the term “impressionism” to define his own musical style, the analogy with that “school” of painting (Monet, Manet, Renoir and others) persists. On the other hand, his brilliantly subtle use of instrument color and forward-looking harmonies that blur the essential tonal nature of his music make the comparison inevitable. His magnificent seascape, “La mer,” was composed between 1903 and 1905. Its first performance took place in Paris at the Concerts Lamoureux on Oct. 15, 1905, under the direction of Camille Chevillard. The work is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals and tam-tam), two harps and strings.

As is the case with his “Nocturnes” (1893-99), “La Mer” (“The Sea,” 1903-05) is a triptych. Unlike the former work, however, “La Mer” has three movements that must be performed together in order retain their unity (Nuages, Fêtes and Sirènes, movements that comprise his “Nocturnes,” could be — and often are — performed separately). “La Mer” represents Debussy at his symphonic best, a fact that garnered criticism from both his friends and enemies.

Debussy’s supporters sensed that he was moving too far from the abstract qualities of symbolism, such as is found in his “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” of 1894, in favor of a too “traditional” approach to composition. His detractors, on the other hand, argued that he did not go far enough, wishing “La Mer” to be a full-fledged symphony. Although some of the criticism toward “La Mer” may have been driven by animosities deriving from scandals surrounding Debussy’s personal life (he had left his wife Lily for Emma Bardac, the wife of a prominent Parisian banker), the work obviously has triumphed over the objections of its earliest critics.

Debussy’s love of the sea was deeply felt, and in a letter to his publisher Jacques Durand, he reveals that under other circumstances he might have pursued a maritime career. In another letter, he identifies the sea as “the thing in nature which best puts you in your place.”

The original title for the first and third sketches were, respectively, Mer belle aux iles sanguinaires and Le vent fait danser la mer (The Beautiful Sea With Happy Islands and The Wind Makes the Sea Dance). The second sketch, Jeux des vagues (Games of the Waves) retained its original title in the final draft of the piece.

I.  De l’aube à midi sur la mer (From Dawn to Noon on the Sea). The immense power of the sea, yet to be unleashed, is portrayed in a slow introduction. The first important theme is played by English horn and trumpet. As dawn rises, the movement of the sea becomes more active, as one feels (and sees in the bow movements of the violins) an undulating, rocking motion. Divided cellos announce the fully wakened forces of nature at work. The end of the sketch is marked by a majestic theme in the horns — the “chorale of the depths.”

II.  Jeux des vagues (Games of the Waves). Debussy’s superb skills as an orchestrator come to the fore in this scherzo filled with brilliant effects and delicacy. The “games” range from the teasing to the powerfully rough and tumble variety.

III.  Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea). At first it seems as though the winds adumbrate an approaching storm. A transformation of a figure from the first movement, a short note followed by a longer one, takes on a plaintive air described by some as akin to a siren’s song. That figure dominates the mood of the entire movement. Cellos and bassoons give an animated statement of the first theme from the opening sketch, which now grows more vehement. That yields eventually to a subtle invocation of the “chorale,” but the plaintive wail of the siren’s song returns in colorful guise, framed by a wonderful high note (harmonic) in the violins. A majestic sounding of the “chorale” in the full brass denotes the powerful coda — a peroration in praise of the sea, which, as Debussy says, has shown us “all her moods.”

David B. Levy is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

David Levy

The author David Levy