Ravel’s La Valse

Hello all,

Our music for this week is La Valse by Maurice Ravel, performed by the Orchestre Nationale de France with the legendary Leonard Bernstein conducting.

Ravel initially composed La Valse as a piano duet for his friend Arnold Schoenberg (whose music we’ve heard a couple times before here at TWM). He had often thought of turning it into an orchestral work, but World War I interrupted those efforts. After serving as a driver in the French motor transport corps in the war, Ravel returned to composing in the 1920s. In 1928, he collaborated with ballet choreographer Ida Rubenstein to transpose it for orchestra and create a ballet set in “an imperial court, about 1855.”

One can hear the nostalgic grandeur of the mid-19th century Viennese waltz era combined with the “movie music” modernity of Ravel’s contemporary context. However, the ending of the piece is particularly un-Viennese. Ominous timpani, Brahms-like slides in the strings and brass, and frenetic trumpet lines combine to form an intense and shocking finale. One wonders if this is a result of Ravel’s experiences in World War I and his misgivings about the upper-class “waltz culture” that had contributed to World War I.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 #18 – Brahms Symphony #1

Hello all,

Our music for this week features the first symphony of Johannes Brahms. It is hard to believe that Brahms hasn’t made it into our Top 25 until now, but he certainly deserves at least one spot. As with many of the other great composers on this countdown, choosing which Brahms composition to feature was very difficult. Brahms’ violin concerto, fourth symphony, Requiem, and piano concerto are all incredible works of music. However, I felt that the first symphony captured much of the emotional depth and intensity that Brahms brings to the table.

Brahms idolized his German predecessor Beethoven, and you can hear unmistakable echoes of Beethoven in this first symphony. It has been nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth” (Beethoven wrote nine symphonies) for this reason. Brahms supposedly put so much pressure on himself to adequately honor Beethoven with this symphony that he revised it for over five years. In fact, he had avoided writing a symphony until age 43 precisely because he wanted to build up enough experience with other compositions – chamber music, solo instrumental music, etc. – so that he had a better chance of meeting a Beethoven-esque standard when he finally arrived at the symphonic format. After this symphony had finally been premiered (with great success), it was as if Brahms breathed a huge sigh of relief. From that point onward, the floodgates opened; in the next decade, he completed three more symphonies and three concertos.

Structurally, this symphony progresses – as perhaps Brahms did himself – from cautious to confident. The opening movement is largely subdued and, at times, emotionally fraught. The final movement is heroic and unabashed.  

Enjoy!

T

Bernstein #6 – The Age of Anxiety

Hello all,

We are completing our series on the life and music of Leonard Bernstein with one of his most under-appreciated compositions, the Symphony #2. This symphony is known as the “Age of Anxiety” symphony. The video you will see was made in 1986. The composer himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with Krystian Zimmerman on the piano. In the introductory interview, Bernstein says, “At least one of the characters [in the story of the piece] does find the core of faith, which is what . . . I am after in every work I ever write.”

The symphony was modeled after W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety.” After reading it, Bernstein wrote the following:

W.H. Auden’s fascinating and hair-raising poem The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue began immediately to affect me lyrically when I first read it in the summer of 1947. From that moment the composition of a symphony based on The Age of Anxiety acquired an almost compulsive quality . . . . The essential line of the poem (and of the music) is the record of our difficult and problematical search for faith. In the end, two of the characters enunciate the recognition of this faith—even a passive submission to it—at the same time revealing an inability to relate to it personally in their daily lives, except through blind acceptance.

The symphony proceeds in two parts, each of which contain three sub-parts. This echoes the six sections in Auden’s poem. Part 1 includes the following:

  • Prologue – four lonely people sit alone in a bar, trying to drink themselves away from their problems. Listen for the clarinets here, who use a long descending scale to give an impression of despair and loneliness.
  • Seven Ages – this movement is a set of variations that look at a man’s lifespan from four different points of view. As you listen, try to figure out how the variations are related. Bernstein intentionally made each one an addition to the previous ones.
  • Seven Stages – This variation follows the struggle of the man’s attempted journey from pain and insecurity to comfort and security. The four characters in the Prologue dream of this journey together, and when they awake, they are closely united through this shared dream.

Part II contains the following three parts:

  • Dirge – the four people sing this mournful song as they take a cab through the city. They mourn the loss of the “colossal Dad,” a figure who has all the answers and can resolve all of their problems.
  • Masque – the four people struggle to find energy to enjoy their evening and eventually disperse. Listen for the sudden outburst of hectic jazz music in this movement, symbolizing the inability of today’s weary people to fully enjoy life.
  • Epilogue – all that is left is faith. The trumpet solo carries this theme to the end with purity and radiance.

Bernstein wanted to highlight the emptiness and anxiety that were left in the wake of WWII despite all the technological progress of his time. I believe his critique is doubly relevant today. We are more powerful and connected than ever, yet we are also more lonely and unfulfilled than ever. We work our lives away, sucked into screens and devices that alienate and control us, caught in the business of getting here and there. Just as Auden’s poem highlighted the emptiness and the search for faith that darkened the world after WWII, Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” Symphony reminds us of the emptiness that can burden even the most powerful society in history.

Enjoy!

T

Bernstein #5 – Chichester Psalms

Hello all,

As we continue our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein, our music for this week is the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein. The composer conducts the Boys and Men’s Choir of the Poznan Philharmonic.

Chichester Psalms was written in 1965 for boy soprano, solo quartet, choir, and orchestra. It is essentially a musical setting of Psalms 2, 23, 100, 108, 131, and 133 that was commissioned by the Revered Walter Hussey of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England.

As with many of his other compsitions, Bernstein wrote extensively about his motivation for composing the Psalms.

“For hours on end I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused;
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality…
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with the forearms, the fists and the palms —
And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
… My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.”

Unlike most of Bernstein’s compositions during this time period, the Psalms are not atonal. In his own words, the piece is “the most accessible, B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” Bernstein was also adamant that the Psalms be sung in the original Hebrew and with the rhythmic style of the Hebrew musical tradition. Some have observed that by writing a Christian mass for a Christian church in the Hebrew language and Hebrew style, Bernstein was implicitly advocating for a peaceful reconciliation between the two faiths.

Here’s a quick rundown of things to listen for:

  • First movement: This movement is based on Psalm 108 and opens with a victorious “Awake, psaltery and harp!” Interestingly, this movement is 7/4 meter, which, if you are a musician, you will know is an almost unheard-of meter.
  • Second movement: listen for the boy soprano solo that is based on Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and is accompanied by the harp (perhaps symbolic of the shepherd-psalmist King David?) Later in the movement, you’ll hear a quick snippet of a West Side Story melody that Bernstein threw in just for fun.
  • Third movement: notice how Bernstein ends the piece with less and less orchestral involvement, eventually giving way to a subdued chorus without instrumentation.

Enjoy!

T

Bernstein #4 – Serenade

Hello all,

We spent the first few weeks of our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein exploring his more popular and public compositions, such as West Side Story and the educational performances he gave to children around the world. For the remaining weeks of the series, we are going to take a look at some of his more obscure compositions, starting with the Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion. The violinist in the video is Vadim Gluzman.

Plato wrote Symposium as a dialogue between several speakers on the topic of love. It was originally a play that contained five parts, and Bernstein named the movements of the Serenade after those parts: Pausanias, Aristophanes, Eryximachus, Agathon, & Alcibiades. Accordingly, the music introduces a new voice or viewpoint in each movement. You will notice that Bernstein recycles certain themes in each of the movements, building upon his earlier work to create a comprehensive whole. Listen for the repeated re-emergence of the opening solo violin theme throughout the latter movements.

Bernstein must have known that we would be learning about his music via these Music Emails because he wrote a description of each movement for his listeners.

Pausanias (Lento; Allegro marcato). Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin.) Pausanias continues by describing the duality of the lover as compared with the beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato.
II. Aristophanes (Allegretto). Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime-storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love. The atmosphere is one of quiet charm.
[Aristophanes sees love as satisfying a basic human need. Much of the musical material derives from the grace-note theme of the first movement. The middle section of this movement incorporates a melody for the lower strings (marked “singing”) played in close canon.]
III. Eryximachus (Presto). The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato-scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.
[This section contains music that corresponds thematically to the canon of the previous movement, Aristophanes]
IV. Agathon (Adagio). Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.
V. Alcibiades (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. Love as a daemon is Socrates’ image for the profundity of love; and his seniority adds to the feeling of didactic soberness in an otherwise pleasant and convivial after-dinner discussion. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements, and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata-form. The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party-music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party. [Speaking through the voice of Diotima, Socrates proposes the notion that the most virtuous form of love is the love for wisdom (philosophy).]”

Enjoy!

T

Bernstein #3 – Young People’s Concerts

“Stories are not what music means. Music is never about things. Music just is. It’s a lot of beautiful notes and sounds put together so well that we get pleasure out of hearing them. So when we ask, ‘What does it mean; what does this piece of music mean?’ we’re asking a hard question. Let’s do our best to answer it.”

Leonard Bernstein, 1958

While Leonard Bernstein’s legacy was cemented by West Side Story and his other great compositions, his influence extended far beyond Broadway. In many ways, he inspired and educated a generation of youth through his Young People’s Concerts. He performed these concerts all around the country and on television to thousands of young people, inspiring them to learn more about the greatest music in the world.

The video you will watch today was originally aired on January 18, 1958. It was titled “What Does Music Mean?” Bernstein uses the various instruments of the orchestra to show the audience what makes the music of William Tell Overture and other famous pieces so special. I find it informative and am sure that, despite its orientation for children, it will be beneficial to you as well. Bernstein is a talented teacher and a gifted communicator, and his excitement about music is contagious.

Enjoy!

T  

Bernstein #2 – West Side Story

Hello all,

Today we will be listening to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, who conducts the NY Philharmonic in a 1976 live performance of his own composition.

West Side Story is arguably the most notable landmark in all of American theater. It took Broadway by storm in 1957, then conquered the silver screen with ease. West Side Story fused the American musical tradition in all of its variety with European theater forms and a Shakespearean love-story theme. It was original, relatable, and lovable.

In 1960, Bernstein decided to capitalize on the popularity of West Side Story and wrote the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. As conductor of world-famous NY Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein was in the perfect position to further publicize his famous musical.

The set of dances is essentially a condensed version of the full musical. The Prologue describes the rivalry between the Jet gang and the Shark gang. It is followed by Somewhere, which describes a dream in which the two gangs develop a friendship. Third is a Scherzo in which the dream continues and takes the gangs out of the city and into a sunlit field. The Mambo showcases the dancing competition between the gangs. Cha-cha is when Tony and Maria – the Romeo and Juliet of the story – see each other for the first time. In Meeting Scene, the lovers speak their first words to one another. The Cool Fugue is an elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets show off their moves. In Rumble, the two gang leaders are killed. The work finishes with a Finale love song sung by Maria.

Enjoy!

T

New Series: Bernstein

Hello all,

Welcome a new series on the music of the great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein! We’ll explore his greatest hits, his movie scores, his Broadway songs, and some of his more obscure works that (I believe) deserve more attention than they get.

Leonard Bernstein is one of the most important figures in American music. He was a composer, conductor, educator, and humanitarian. After training with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s legendary conductor Serge Koussevitsky, Bernstein embarked on an incredible career at the helm of the world-renowned New York Philharmonic.

While Bernstein is probably most famous for his score to West Side Story, he wrote many other compositions that were just as spectacular. One of these is the 1949 film On the Town (adapted from the 1944 Broadway play by the same name), which starred Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munshin on a 24-hour exploration of New York City. The lyrics tell us that New York is “a wonderful town” and “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” While the lyrics and the upbeat tune are the deserving focus, the music itself is not as basic as it may seem. Bernstein actually composed the entire film score for On the Town based on a single theme. In other words, every song is a variation on the same set of tonalities. Even within this tune, Bernstein creates a variation on the opening theme by adding sixteenth (faster) notes to the last iteration of the theme.

Enjoy!

T