Midori & The Planets: Program Notes April 28-30
Debussy’s serene piano piece, orchestrated by the legendary Leopold Stokowski. Then, Korngold’s achingly beautiful Violin Concerto (reimagined from his Oscar-winning film scores), performed by former child prodigy Midori, now a mesmerizing virtuoso. Finally, Holst’s dramatic interpretation of the cosmos. Music inspired by the galaxy itself — grand and exciting!
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Clair de Lune
Arr. Leopold Stokowski
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) Concerto in D Major for Violin and
Orchestra, Op. 35
Finale: Allegro assai vivace
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) The Planets
Mars, the Bringer of War
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Uranus, the Magician
Neptune, the Mystic
Women of Pacific Chorale
Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman included.
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for April 28 - 30. You'll be automatically linked to the next NoteStream at the end.
To Learn more about our Guest Conductor Bramwell Tovey, click here
Meet the Guest Artist Midori here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
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Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes (second doubling on English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, trumpet, percussion, harp, strings
Performance time: 6 minutes
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Claude Debussy in 1908
Clair de Lune
If Debussy were not so often cited as “the father of musical Impressionism,” we might invent the phrase based solely on the titles of his most famous compositions.
Atmospheric and visual, they suggest color, light and water, and could just as easily name Impressionist paintings as musical works: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, La Mer and Clair de Lune (moonlight).
Clair de Lune was originally composed around 1890, early in Debussy’s career, as the third movement of a piano suite of four movements. By far the most popular of the four, it has been excerpted and orchestrated more than any of the other three.
Though music dictionaries trace the term “bergamasque” to rustic dances from the Italian town of Bergamo, the sound of Clair de Lune seems to contradict that designation in every possible way: it does not suggest dancing and is elegant and luminous, rather than countrified.
What to Listen For
In Debussy’s music, he showed us how evocations of mood and atmosphere could function as light does in Impressionist paintings.
By now we are comfortable viewing the paintings of Renoir, Monet and their colleagues, and their works have gained such widespread popularity that we must remind ourselves how Impressionist paintings shocked the eye back in the 1870s: The colors seemed strangely bright, the shadowy neutrals were gone, and the paintings rendered impressions of light rather than the world of objects in space.
Yet somehow that world materializes before us as we simply relax and look.
Debussy’s compositions sounded similarly unfamiliar at first: His instrumental color, texture and meandering harmonies ignore traditional combinations.
Where Impressionist paintings leave the world of objects behind, Impressionist music goes beyond earlier conventions of harmonic and rhythmic development, moving from one bar to the next in a spontaneous, organic flow. Though Debussy edged away from traditional major and minor keys, he did not eliminate traditional tonal centers, but “blurred” them.
Employing exotic harmonies and the “perfect” scale comprised only of whole steps—with only seven integral notes in play, we can’t even use the term “octave”—Debussy’s music accustoms us to tonal evocations of mood and atmosphere that function as light does in Impressionist paintings.
That said, Impressionist music continues to challenge us as listeners a bit more than Impressionist painting does.
If we are less comfortable with Debussy and Ravel than with Renoir and Monet, that may not be such a bad thing; as the art critic Sister Wendy Beckett reminds us, the trick is to come to each work of art as something new, approaching it with courage and without preconceptions, opening ourselves to the experience it offers.
Clair de Lune
Clair de Lune, by Claude Debussy, played by Stephen Malinowski, with graphical score.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 to 1957)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (second doubling on English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons (second doubling on contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, timpani, 2 percussion, harp, celeste, strings, solo violin Performance time: 24 minutes
Erich Wolfgang Korngold is widely known as a “famous composer,” but just how famous—and why—depends upon whom you ask.
Musicologists regard him as one of the most remarkable prodigies in the history of classical music, the boy wonder who at age 9 was declared a genius by Gustav Mahler.
Mahler secured him a position studying with the eminent pedagogue and composer Alexander Zemlinsky, who had also taught Schoenberg, the leader of the revolutionary “Second Viennese School” that also included Alban Berg; while his colleagues looked to Schoenberg as the movement’s father, Schoenberg looked to Zemlinsky.
Under Zemlinsky’s tutelage Korngold progressed from writing complex piano compositions to a ballet score, Der Schneemann, when he was 11, and it became a sensation—this at a time when the rules of classical composition had become so aesthetically advanced and complex that the idea of a pre-teenager composing a fully-developed work of musical theater seemed even more unlikely than it did in Mozart’s day.
He followed with his first orchestral score, the Schauspiel Ouverture, when he was 14, and did not look back—producing his first two operas, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, when he was 17.
At 23 he reached the height of his fame as a composer of opera and concert music with his haunting opera Die tote Stadt, which achieved success throughout the world and is still widely produced in the U.S.
Aficionados of Hollywood film music, who know the name Korngold well, are sometimes unaware that the wunderkind who created a sensation in European classical music circles just before and after World War I is the same person who became famous for his film scores.
The late opera director Bliss Hebert, who was an expert on Korngold and directed American productions of his operas, credited him with virtually inventing the feature film score in the golden age of the Hollywood studios.
Errol Flynn as Robin Hood (Sir Robin of Locksley) and Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne holding swords against one another.
What turned out to be a fateful commission for Korngold came from the director Max Reinhardt, a force in the worlds of theater and opera as well as cinema, who invited Korngold to Hollywood in 1934 to adapt Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to fit a film version of the play.
The adaptation brought him to the attention of the Warner Brothers studio, which invited him back to Hollywood in 1938 to compose the score for an eagerly awaited Errol Flynn feature, The Adventures of Robin Hood.
What to Listen For
In his violin concerto, Korngold bestrides his two musical worlds— his classical European background and the brave new world of the Hollywood studios—with seven-league boots.
His fantastic technical facility enabled him to write music that fit the mood and the timing of a movie with frame-by-frame precision while sounding utterly and naturally melodic, setting a standard for movie music that, according to many critics, has never been equaled.
He won the Academy Award for best original film score for Robin Hood, and was later nominated for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Sea Hawk.
The violin concerto is composed in Korngold’s characteristically lush, melodic style, and is most often cited as the cornerstone of his classical reputation—though opera fans put his operas on equal footing.
But it is in the concerto that Korngold bridges the concert hall and Hollywood: its opening Moderato nobile movement is built around themes from his scores for Another Dawn and Juarez; in the central Romanze movement, the main theme is a quotation from his Anthony Adverse; and in the final Allegro assai vivace, an energetic movement with plenty of virtuoso licks, the proceedings build to a rollicking climax based on a melody from The Prince and the Pauper.
---Heifetz plays Korngold Violin Concerto in D - Part 1/3
Championed by Jascha Heifetz, the concerto soon entered the standard repertory. It is dedicated to Alma Mahler, Gustav’s widow; considering all the European culturati who nursed bad crushes on this charismatic woman, it’s quite possible that Korngold did, too.
Gustav Holst (1874 -1934 )
Instrumentation: 4 flutes (third doubling on piccolo, fourth doubling on alto flute and second piccolo), 3 oboes (third doubling on bass oboe), English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, tenor tuba, 2 timpani, 2 harps, 4 percussion, celeste, organ, strings
Performance time: 51 minutes
His name may not sound English, but his music certainly does. Gustav Holst is among the best loved of all 20th-century English composers.
Born in Cheltenham, an ancient town in the Gloucestershire countryside, Gustav was the scion of a musical family.
His father, Adolph von Holst, was a professional musician who became organist and choirmaster at Cheltenham’s All Saints’ Church; his mother, Clara Cox, was daughter of a respected solicitor and a talented singer and pianist in her own right.
On his father’s side, Gustav’s forebears were professional musicians going back three generations—to the court of Imperial Russia, where his great- grandfather was composer and harp teacher.
None Too Pleased
Despite all that, we might surmise that Adolph was none too pleased when Gustav gravitated toward a composing career.
When the boy demonstrated his precocity, undertaking grandiose compositions at an early age—perhaps as early as age 12—Gustav’s father tried to steer him toward piano performance.
But Adolph also funded Gustav’s study of counterpoint at Merton College, Oxford, when he was 17; upon his return, he was appointed as an organist and choirmaster at Wyck Rissington in Gloucestershire, a position that included responsibilities as a choral director.
By 1892, Gustav, though still a teenager, composed an accomplished and successful Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style operetta. At an age when he might reasonably be considering his college options, he now had a musical portfolio of unusual breadth.
Throughout his career, he continued to combine an awareness of the practicalities of the professional musician’s life in England with the changing aesthetics of the international classical music scene—most especially the impact of German, Austrian and Russian composers.
We can hear the full range of Gustav Holst’s musical background and education in his best-known composition, The Planets. It is endearing, charming and full of the openness of the English plainsong tradition; yet it is also executed with the sophistication and cosmopolitanism of a composer well acquainted with the latest international music of his day.
But if the confident exuberance of The Planets suggests that this suite was easy for him to compose, Holst has actually accomplished something extremely difficult with it, sustaining our rapt attention for seven movements spanning almost an hour with no content other than the personalities and moods represented by each planet.
Every movement is intensely colorful and specific, with each planetary subject so clearly in view that we feel ready to land our NASA module on the surface.
Yet there is no story line, no overarching form… nothing but mood and the richness of the melodic subjects and rhythmic figures that Holst employs, including many folk songs from his beloved England.
What to Listen For
It’s hard to beat a luminous night sky as a source of inspiration for philosophers, physicists, poets and kings through the ages.
Are the heavens for artists to understand, or do they lie within the realm of science? Like so many of the great classical thinkers, the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras saw no separation between the two.
On the scientific side, he defined the numerical ratios by which vibrating strings produce tones that are octaves apart. But he also speculated about “music of the spheres,” the subtle sounds of heavenly bodies expressing the ineffable qualities of the Greek Zodiac according to orbital ratios.
Those inspiring celestial lights? Yes, they were physical objects obeying scientific laws, but they were also the embodiments of characters in Greek myths. We could hear their personalities if we really listened.
Composing “for large orchestra” between 1914 and 1916, Holst placed himself firmly in this Pythagorean tradition, giving us one of the most remarkable of all orchestral suites.
From its enormous popularity and persuasiveness—is it possible not to have a great time listening to this music?—one might think that this suite would exert a gravitational pull of its own, influencing other composers to write orchestral suites and tone poems that draw on its success.
Suite For Large Orchestra
Expansive in every sense, The Planets is catalogued as a “Suite for Large Orchestra” and also calls for a chorus of female voices; Holst uses these resources to the hilt, giving the suite a sense of astronomical space and the swirling energy of a spiral nebula.
Though he denied that the suite has any connection to the classical Zodiac other than the names and traits of the personified planets, that connection by itself is enough for the music to conjure strong images of the mythological deities associated with each.
We hear seven movements in all: Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, the Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age (purportedly Holst’s favorite!); Uranus, the Magician; and Neptune, the Mystic.
Earth is not among those profiled; nor is Pluto, which was discovered and then ejected from the planetary club after Holst composed.
Now that another “ninth planet” has been discovered, and a huge one at that, we can only wonder what Holst might have made of it.
Mars and Venus
The suite opens with Mars, plunging us into a universe of amoral phenomena; the bringer of war is presented as neither good nor bad, but remarkable for his virility and power.
This is conveyed with pounding rhythmic figures of five beats each, indicative of brute force and with a melodic theme that seems capable of going anywhere.
Venus, by contrast, announces herself with an ascending figure of four horn notes that give rise to serenely converging chords voiced in the woodwinds; her sound is celestial, with the shimmer and sparkle of the celesta, harp and glockenspiel, bringing a sense of peace and of vertiginous space, in contrast to the earthbound Mars.
Mercury, the winged messenger, is quick in every sense: the suite’s movement of shortest duration, it conveys a sense of darting speed through devilishly constructed runs of rapid notes in two different keys and rhythms. The juxtaposition of opposing elements, a favorite device of Holst’s (and a difficult one to apply) is especially vivid here.
Jupiter And Saturn
Again, it gives rise to a marked contrast: Jupiter, the bringer of jollity, in a movement full of the charm of traditional English folk tunes.
There is something deeply endearing in Jupiter’s wholesome cheer that has made it the most popular of the suite’s movements, and has revived interest in the songs it quotes.
If any of the suite’s movements can be said to suggest a conventional narrative line, it is Saturn—Holst’s favorite—in a life’s journey toward reconciliation. What might sound like hints of despair in its beginnings are later subsumed by the wisdom and harmony of old age.
But in this suite, if wisdom has an opposite, it’s not ignorance, but the sass of Uranus, the magician—smart-alecky and unpredictable.
Uranus is a prankster, and in this movement we hear not only the evidence of tricks, but also of the prankster’s smug satisfaction in his own cleverness.
Has Holst been leading us outward in the solar system? Not in a strict astronomical sense, but perhaps in an aesthetic one—from the martial strains of Mars to Neptune, the mystic, whose very mystery conveys a sense of endless space.
The musical materials here are not melodic themes so much as cryptic figures that play off each other, like intersecting rays of astronomical light.
A wordless chorale of women’s voices shimmers, swelling from inaudibility to a veil of sound, then recedes into the stars. In the end, after our exuberant tour of the skies, we are left at the very edge of all that we know, looking out at a thrilling but unfathomable universe.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
To learn more about tonight's guest conductor Bramwell Tovey, please click here
To learn about tonight's guest artist Midori, please click here