Widows of the Living and of the Dead
Octavio Vázquez was born on Sept. 10, 1972, in Santiago de Compostela (Galicia, Spain), and spontaneously started writing music at age 7. In 1989, he moved to Madrid, where he later studied at the CAM Conservatory and the Madrid Royal Conservatory, earning degrees in piano, collaborative piano and theory. He went on to study composition at the Peabody Institute, obtaining his doctorate afterward from the University of Maryland, College Park. Vazquez currently teaches composition at Nazareth College of Rochester, New York. He has also written for film and collaborated with crossover artists as an arranger, orchestrator and producer. Vazquez’s music has been performed throughout the United States, Europe and Asia in venues such as Carnegie Hall, the National Auditorium of Spain and the Moscow State Institute of Art. “Widows of the Living and Dead,” a concerto for Gaita (Galician bagpipe) and orchestra, was commissioned in 2014 by Cristina Pato, a native of Galicia who resides in the United States and is a member of the Silkroad Ensemble and New Music USA.
The title of “Widows of the Living and the Dead” is derived from an 1880 collection of Galician poetry by Rosalia de Castro entitled Follas novas (Fallen Leaves). Her work is considered some of the most important in Galician culture. The poem laments the depopulation of Galicia with men having to go away to work, leaving villages of single women and fatherless children with little hope that they will ever return. The following notes were kindly provided by the composer:
Traditional roles of women in Galician society, often as a result of harsh historical circumstances, have not been second to those of men. Galician history abounds with examples of women leaders, even when it comes to politics and warfare, from all periods of recorded history starting with the Roman invasions (137-19 B.C.).
More recently, women have often taken upon themselves to provide for entire families in a pre-industrial environment: from running farms to building gravel roads with pickaxes. These were the “widows of the living and of the dead,” resulting from the massive emigration suffered during most of the 19th and 20th centuries. This piece celebrates their unbroken and ultimately triumphant spirit. Needless to say, this celebration is extensive to all women throughout history.
The Gaita (Galician bagpipe) is the national instrument of my homeland, Galicia, in northwestern Spain. Fostered by a long tradition of male pipers, it has been a woman piper, Cristina Pato, who has finally brought the instrument to international attention.
Dr. Pato is a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, has had pieces written for her by composers such as Osvaldo Golijov and Emilio Solla and has taken the Gaita into the hither- to unexplored territories of jazz and Brazilian bossa. Along the way, she has developed unique technical abilities and a very distinctive playing style. This piece was commissioned by and written for her, with support from New Music USA.
Roberto Relova Quinteiro, who reviewed “Widows,” wrote that the concerto is structured in three movements: “Muller” (“Woman”), “Moderato” and “Elas” (“they/them,” plural feminine). He further described the piece as follows:
“The development of the work in its ffirst movement is of an unprecedented twilight beauty that overcomes the barriers of any academic concept. The intelligent timbrical (sic) exploration of the orchestra is imbricated with different variants that revolve around the motifs of traditional Galician music. Thus, the orchestra undergoes a sound trip in which the bagpipe is a light that guides the poetics of Vazquez and in which it (the bagpipe) reaches the parameters of modern and contemporary creation.
Amazing is the audacious presence of the brass, to which Vazquez submits to a sound introspection enriched by the nuances and the very high level of the musicians of the ORFG. The work demands drama, expressiveness, theatricality and an inevitable contact with film music. Excellent, beautiful and triumphant third movement reminiscent of a new blessed imaginary.”
Manfred Symphony, Op. 58 Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia, and died on Nov. 6, 1893 in St. Petersburg. He remains one of the most popular composers of all time, beloved especially for his symphonies, ballets and concertos. His Manfred Symphony, Op. 58, inspired by the 1817 poem of George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788- 1824), was composed in 1885 and received its premiere in Moscow on March 23, 1886, under the baton of Max Erdmannsdörfer. The work is scored for three flutes (piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, two cornets, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harmonium (organ), two harps and strings.
Tchaikovsky’s fourth and fifth symphonies are separated by a hiatus of 11 years, during which time the composer underwent major personal crises, chief among them being his impetuous decision to wed Antonina Milyukova in 1877. This relationship led inevitably to a dissolving of the marriage, but it was only after Antonina gave birth in 1881 to an illegitimate child that Tchaikovsky had the legal grounds to file for divorce.
Antonina entered into the marriage fully aware of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, and it is hard to understand why either of them chose to become involved in this ill-fated relationship. Tsarist Russian society would never condone homosexuality, and perhaps the composer married in order to stave off rumors.
This unhappy period in Tchaikovsky’s life resulted in few successful major compositions, with the Violin Concerto and Piano Trio being the most conspicuous exceptions. Confidence began to return to the composer in 1884, although his self-doubts about successfully handling large, multimovement compositions such as symphonies persisted.
It was into this milieu that Tchaikovsky was approached by fellow composer Mily Balakirev to create a multimovement programmatic work based on the “metaphysical drama,” “Manfred,” penned in 1816 and 1817 by the British Romantic poet, Lord Byron. “Manfred,” which bears some similarities in mood and spirit to Part One of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1808). Its setting in the Alps was inspired by the fact that Byron, exiled from his native England, was living at that time in Switzerland.
This play inspired music by Robert Schumann (1848) in the form of an overture and incidental music. Byron’s poetry was much admired throughout Europe, and one particularly relevant musical work, Hector Berlioz’s programmatic Harold en Italie, was inspired by Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” The French master had made two visits to Russia, the second of which took place in 1867 and 1868, during which Harold was performed. An immediate was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s four-movement “Antar” (1868).
The Russian critic, Vladimir Stasov, fired by his enthusiasm for both Byron and Berlioz, proposed that a symphony based on Manfred would make a suitable follow-up to Harold and drafted a program, which he sent to Balakirev, who felt inadequate to the task. Balakirev, in turn, asked Berlioz if he might be interested, but the Frenchman declined, citing lack of strength due to encroaching old age.
It made sense that Balakirev would next approach Tchaikovsky with the idea of taking on the Manfred project. The “Symphonic Fantasy” from The Tempest (1873), “Symphonic Fantasy after Dante” from Francesca di Rimini (1877) and “Overture-Fantasy” from Romeo and Juliet (1870, rev. 1872 and 1880) amply demonstrated his skill in fashioning effective programmatic music inspired by literature.
It should not go unnoticed also that Romeo and Juliet was not only dedicated to Balakirev, but showed Tchaikovsky’s willingness to embrace Balakirev’s recommendations of tonal structure. Tchaikovsky initially declined to take on Manfred, fearing that he could not produce something truly original. But after reading through Byron’s play while visiting a friend in Davos, Switzerland (an Alpine setting that informed both the poet and play), he modified Stasov and Balakirev’s plan and set to work. While still beset by self doubt, Tchaikovsky later wrote to a friend that the “symphony has turned out to be huge, serious, difficult … but an inner voice tells me that my labor is not in vain and that this … will perhaps be the best of my symphonic works.”
Not all critics and conductors have agreed with this self-assessment of the Manfred Symphony, but its programmatic nature freed Tchaikovsky from the limits of traditional symphonic forms with which he often had struggled. The first movement is laid out in big segments, the first of which is an effective portrayal of the “Byronic hero” of the title character, whose unnamed prior sins have led him to despair. He invokes the “Spirits of the Universe” for answers, but only the remembrance of his former love, Astarte, can bring calm to his soul.
The second movement (“Vivace con spirito”) depicts the hero amid nature. Standing before a waterfall in Act 2, Scene 2, Manfred tosses a handful of water into the air, creating that a rainbow from which emerges the Witch of the Alps, who vanishes by dint of Manfred’s defiance. Act 2, Scene 1 depicts Manfred standing atop the Jungfrau, unable to find solace in the beauty of the mountains. As he is about to commit suicide by leaping onto the cliffs, a Chamois Hunter intervenes.
Seeking solace in the company of the old man (Act 3), Manfred ultimately realizes that the pastoral life of the hunter cannot satisfy his longing. Tchaikovsky gives musical voice to these scenes in the third movement of his symphony — a pastoral movement that may have been a tribute also to the third movement of Berlioz’s Harold symphony, set in the Abruzzi mountains.
The finale (“Allegro con fuoco”) conflates Act 2, Scene 4 of Byron’s play — a hellish scene played in the infernal Hall of Arimanes. A fugal orgy ensues (again, a likely tribute to the finales of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and the “Orgy of the Brigands” that concludes his Harold en Italie symphony). The ghost of Astarte appears, promising Manfred the end to his suffering and absolution for whatever his wrongs against her may have been — not unlike Gretchen’s intervention for the soul of Faust — foreshadowing the hero’s death. The triumphant sounding of a chorale by the organ provides the symphony’s apotheosis.
Musicologist David B. Levy is a professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He has also taught at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. A Beethoven scholar, he founded the New Beethoven Research group and has lectured widely throughout the United States and Europe.
Levy will deliver a Pre-Concert Lecture at 6:45 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 9, in Hurlbut Church Sanctuary.