Symphony Notes for Week Three


Christopher Theofanidis

American composer Christopher Theofanidis was born on Dec. 18, 1967, in Dallas, Texas, and currently serves on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He holds degrees from Yale, the Eastman School of Music and the University of Houston. Theofanidis has received several distinguished prizes, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rome Prize, the International Masterprize (Barbican Centre, London) and has had fellowships at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts and from the Fulbright Foundation. His orchestral works have been performed by major orchestras around the world. From 1994-96 he was composer-in-residence with the California Symphony. “Muse,” a 12-minute work in three movements, was composed in 2007 for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and was inspired by the Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach. Its first performance took place in December 2017. “Muse” is scored for strings and harpsichord.

The composer has provided the following program notes for “Muse”:

“I wrote ‘Muse’ in 2007 for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as part of their series called ‘The New Brandenburgs,’ in which that ensemble commissioned six composers to write new works based on the instrumentation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti. Bach wrote these pieces as a kind of job audition for a post in Brandenburg — a post which he ironically did not get, but these pieces have become a part of the repertory in any case. They each have a distinctive orchestration because of the peculiar makeup of the Brandenburg court orchestra, which had benefited from the disbanding of a great orchestra in Berlin and had received some of their star players. Each of them can be played as a kind of large chamber ensemble or as a small orchestra piece.

“I was given the third Brandenburg concerto instrumentation, which is for strings and harpsichord, though the strings are not divided in the standard orchestral division of five parts, but rather in 10: three violins, three violas, three cellos, and contrabass. Bach used this breakdown to great effect by thickening each of the principal lines in three — using a broader paint brush for each of the parts of the counterpoint. Despite this, he remarkably achieves a light and transparent sound, and I tried to move toward this way of working in my piece. 

“The general sound world is also quite closely Baroque in harmony and rhythm. The first movement has a running 16th-note figure, which is actually a minor triple-meter version of the main melodic line in the first movement of the Bach. This is balanced by a short motive of three repeated notes followed by a single lower note. The second movement is highly ornate with a long-lined melody always in the background. The third movement is based on one of my favorite Bach chorale tunes (though he himself adapted it from a Medieval (sic) period chant), Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland.

“At the end of the commissioning cycle, all six works (were) played with their Bach counterparts. The other composers represented (were) Peter Maxwell Davies, Aaron Jay Kernis, Paul Moravec, Melinda Wagner and Stephen Hartke, and given the idea of having each of us write a work with Bach at the heart of it, the title ‘Muse’ seemed appropriate.”

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Major, K. 488

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on Jan. 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria, and died on Dec. 5, 1791, in Vienna. His concertos for piano and orchestra represent his most significant body of instrumental music — a model of perfect balance between solo instrument and orchestra, as well as between musical form and content. Mozart’s earliest model for the genre were the keyboard (piano or harpsichord) concertos of Johann Christian Bach, which the young Mozart heard performed in London. The Concerto in A major, K. 488 (No. 23 in the old Complete Works edition) can be dated as being finished on March 2, 1786. The number “K. 488” is taken from Ludwig Köchel’s chronological catalogue of the complete works of Mozart, first published in 1861 and which now is in its eighth edition.

One of the practices of society and culture in 18th and 19th century Europe dictated that operas were not to be performed during Lent. This holy season thus became “prime time” for composers and performers — often one and the same individual — to hold subscription concerts, either for the benefit of charity or to further their own careers. Sometimes (as in the case of another of Mozart’s piano concertos), a concerto might be performed in the English tradition of Handel, i.e., as the intermission feature between the “acts” of a new oratorio. The patrons of these concerts often were music-loving aristocrats at whose palaces and townhouses these events usually took place. The Lenten season of 1784 saw Mozart busy with the composition of no fewer than four new piano concertos (in E-flat major, K. 449; B-flat major, K. 450; D major, K. 451; G major, K. 453).

The season of 1786 produced three new concertos, (in E-flat major, K. 482; in A major, K. 488; and in C minor, K. 491). This was also a period of intensive work on Mozart’s towering achievement in the realm of comic opera, Le nozze di Figaro. A distinguishing feature of the concertos of 1786 is the astonishing passages for woodwind instruments. Mozart’s orchestration, especially for flute, clarinet and bassoon, in these concertos adds an expressive color and depth to their already bountiful store of melodic and harmonic beauty. Mozart was no stranger to composing for woodwind instruments, having earlier produced concertos for flute, oboe, horn and bassoon (the exquisite Clarinet Concerto was to come later), but this alone does not explain the prominent concertante role that the winds play in the piano concertos composed between 1784 and 1786.

Another interesting feature concerning K. 488 is the relatively sparse scoring of the solo piano part, suggesting the likelihood that Mozart brought his legendary skills as an improviser to bear when he performed the piece. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the haunting Adagio second movement in F-sharp minor (an unusual feature in its own right!), which offers moments of stark austerity alongside achingly emotional depth. When this quasi-siciliano is performed as published, as is often the case, its essentially tragic nature is made all the more poignant by its occasional lapses into silence. The final movement, with its wealth of thematic material — now dance-like, now lyrical — and its virtuosity, lifts us back into the world where Mozart is at his most enchanting and playful — one is tempted to add childlike — self.

Symphony No. 8 in G Major, op. 88 B163

Antonín Dvořák

The Czech master Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, on Sept. 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. His Symphony No. 8 is one of his most popular works in the genre, taking its place just behind the most popular one, “From the New World.” The Eighth Symphony was composed between Aug. 26 and Nov. 8, 1889, and received its premiere in Prague on Feb. 20, 1890. When it was published in London in 1892, it was erroneously listed as “Symphony No. 4.” The work is scored for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.

One of Dvořák’s most popular and tuneful works, his Symphony No. 8 reflects a happy time in the composer’s life. The composer had experienced a rise to international prominence in the early 1880s, spurred in part by the skill he brought to bear in embracing the Bohemian nationalism established by his elder compatriot, Bedřich Smetana, but also by his growing mastery of form, harmony and orchestration. Johannes Brahms stood at the forefront of Dvořák’s admirers, working actively to promote Dvořák’s music among German audiences and introducing the composer to the important Berlin music publisher, Simrock.

Dvořák, however, was torn between two worlds. How could he foster his acceptance outside of his homeland without sacrificing the folk-like elements of Czech music that had become an essential element in his emerging style? Anti-Czech sentiment in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to which the Czech lands belonged, had been running high. A performance of Dvořák’s opera, Dimitrij, which had been a success in Prague, was now being contemplated for Vienna. But the directors of the opera in Vienna decided that the staging of a Czech nationalistic opera was too risky, and pressure mounted for Dvořák to consider selecting from two German librettos for a new opera. To make matters worse, Brahms was urging Dvořák to move to Vienna. Were Dvořák to accept these career moves, his future success would have been assured. The magnet of national identity, however, proved too strong, and Dvořák respectfully declined the offer to compose the new opera. Thus freed, he turned his energies to other projects. The fact that these projects continued to include the composition of symphonies — Nos. 7 (1885) and 8 (1889) — demonstrates that Dvořák could have things his way after all. The ongoing influence of Brahms’s symphonies, especially the Third Symphony, had become reconciled with Dvořák’s Czech muse, and he was now free to integrate his folk idiom into the structural rigors of symphonic composition. It is no accident that Dvořák’s best, and most popular symphonies — Nos. 7, 8, and 9 (“From the New World”) — all came into being after the watershed events just described.

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 is, generally speaking, one of his most lyrical, and some writers have seen a kinship to the spirit of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. The work is filled with fascinating innovations. Take, for example, the beautiful G-minor theme that begins the Allegro con brio first movement. The melody presents itself softly and expressively in the clarinets, bassoons, horns and lower strings, only to yield ground to the “real” first theme — a jaunty birdcall with crisply dotted rhythms — chirped by the solo flute. The opening lyrical theme reappears at the start of the development section and once again at the movement’s climax, now boldly blared by the trumpets against a tumultuous cascade of chromatic scales in the strings. Upon its appearance, one is left to wonder whether we have arrived at the movement’s recapitulation or the defiant last gasp of the development section.

The opening of the beautiful Adagio second movement in C minor shows how much Dvořák had learned from Brahms and Schubert. As in the first movement, Dvořák contrasts mellow timbres with brighter upper woodwinds. A haunting effect is created by the clarinets, who respond to each of the flute and oboe phrases with cadences that constantly shift modality — now sad, now happy. A contrasting major key theme is introduced, punctuated by staccato chords in the brass and delicate scales in the violins.

The third movement, an Allegretto grazioso in G minor, features a graceful folk-like waltz theme. The three-part design introduces another lilting theme, this time in G major, as the central “trio” section. An unusual coda follows the return of the opening section. The tempo shifts unexpectedly to Molto vivace with the meter changing from triple to duple.

The finale, which essentially presents itself as a theme and variation, begins with a stirring and memorable fanfare introduction in the unison trumpets. The cellos then sing the principal theme, which is followed by a sequence of formal variations. This soon yields to an outburst of unbridled jubilation in the whole orchestra, highlighted by brilliant and raucous trills in the horns. A quasi-serious march in C minor, reminiscent of a ragtag village band, follows. The march becomes more assertive, subjected to a host of descending sequences, until the opening fanfare brings things back down to earth. The variation theme returns, only to transform itself this time into a sublime reverie. The jubilant outburst, however, jolts us out of this dream, marking the onset of an exciting coda.

David B. Levy is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He will present a Pre-Concert Lecture on tonight’s program at 6:45 p.m. in the Hurlbut Church Sanctuary.

Tags : Antonín DvořákChristopher TheofanidisConcerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Major K. 488MuseSymphony No. 8 in G Major op. 88 B163symphony notesWolfgang Amadeus Mozart
David Levy

The author David Levy