Program Notes

by Dr. Marcia Fountain

September 2017


Antonio Vivaldi
Born March 4, 1678, Venice, Italy
Died July 28, 1741, Vienna, Austria

Four Seasons, op. 8

Astor Piazzolla
Born March 11, 1921, Mar del Plata, Argentina
Died July 5, 1992, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Four Seasons of Buenos Aires

The strong contrast between winter and summer and the mixture of both found in spring and fall make the changing seasons an attractive topic for artists of both vision and sound. Two of the most famous musical compositions on this topic will be featured tonight in a way that will also make for interesting contrasts between 18th century and 20th century musical styles.

Vivaldi’s Seasons, in its full version, consists of four concertos of several movements each. For tonight, only a few of the movements have been chosen to alternate with the four works by Piazzolla. Vivaldi and Piazzolla were both well-known in their time, partly from travels and partly from the advantages of some fairly new technology of those times. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was published in Amsterdam in 1725 as part of a set that contained eight other concertos. Amsterdam by then had established itself as a major center of music publication and the ability to easily make many copies of a composition and thus give it wide distribution was a major factor in the fame of many composers.

Piazzolla traveled extensively, making the tango and other popular music of his native Argentina widely known. His fame was also spread by recordings, which by the mid-20th century were important in building the reputations of performers and composers. When Piazzolla and his quintet came to Washington, D.C. as part of a tour, the great jazz player Cannonball Adderley met him unexpectedly and exclaimed, “God! I have all your records!”

Piazzolla’s Seasons was not planned originally as a set. The pieces were composed individually between 1960 and 1970 and only later did the four movements come to be played as a multi-movement set. Originally, they were written for, and performed by, Piazzolla’s own quintet, consisting of violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass, and bandoneon. Piazzolla himself made several other arrangements for various groups and others have arranged the movements for string orchestra. For a different sound experience, a compilation of recordings of his Seasons with Piazzolla himself performing can be found on YouTube, an important new technological innovation of our time.

Vivaldi in his Seasons tried to create some specific effects, such as the winter wind, a storm, and so on. He attached poems about each season to the score. Piazzolla, on the other hand, made no effort at specific description in any of the movements. They are instead just four musical works that happen to have titles. Alternating two such different styles of music should be an exciting musical adventure for the audience in this evening’s performance.

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff
Born March 18, 1844, Tikhvin, near Novgorod, Russia
Died June 21, 1908, Liubensk, near St. Petersburg, Russia

Snow Maiden Suite

The remainder of tonight’s concert features two Russian works, both based on folk legends, which have strong connections to nature and, hence, the seasons. As Richard Taruskin has said, “…folk ritual and its accompanying music mediate between the realm of nature and the realm of humankind.” Rimsky-Korsakov was very conscious of this connection in his opera the Snow Maiden, and included in the score several Russian folk songs. The opera is based on an old legend in which The Snow Maiden, daughter of Winter, is protected from dying as long as she is not exposed to sunlight. But unfortunately, she falls in love with a mortal and is exposed to the sun, whose rays melt her, returning her to nature.

Igor Stravinsky
Born June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
Died April 6, 1971, New York City, NY

The Firebird Suite

Stravinsky's ballet, The Firebird, was written in 1909–1910 for production by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris in 1910. Again, we encounter the mix of nature, magic, and myth. The story is based on an old Russian legend about the magical firebird. Wandering in the forest at night, Ivan Tsarevitch encounters the firebird and captures it. The firebird gives Ivan a glowing feather in exchange for its release. As dawn comes, a castle is revealed and 13 beautiful maidens emerge to play in the garden with its silver tree and golden fruit. Ivan dances with the maidens and receives a golden fruit as a gift from one of them. Suddenly, Ivan realizes that the castle is the home of Kastchei, who seizes travelers and forces them to do his will. Realizing that the maidens are prisoners, Ivan, with the help of the firebird, succeeds in killing Kastchei. As Kastchei dies, the castles disappear and the 13 maidens are free. Ivan receives the most beautiful of the maidens in marriage.

Most commentators consider the influence of Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky's teacher and friend at the time, to be strong in The Firebird. Indeed, Stravinsky worked on the score while living in a house owned by the Rimsky-Korsakov family; the score is dedicated to Andrei, the son of Nicolas, who was with him during much of the time he worked on it. Stravinsky was well-acquainted with Russian folk melody collections, among them those by Rimsky-Korsakov, and there are three folk melodies incorporated into the Firebird score.

In later years, Stravinsky often was put off by the popularity of The Firebird. But even then, he admitted that he was proud of the orchestration (in fact, prouder of the orchestration than of the music), though he called the original orchestra wastefully large. And he noted that it had been a mainstay of his conducting career, since he had conducted it over 1,000 times. Its popularity is well-deserved.

October 2017


Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 in G Major, op. 58

Beethoven's own instrument was the piano. Much of his early fame was as a pianist as well as a composer, and he abandoned performance only when his advancing deafness precluded it. As a pianist he introduced major changes in approach, adding elements of drama and even roughness to the more refined techniques and approaches of performers such as Mozart.

The Fourth Piano Concerto, however, is in many ways a quiet and introspective work. It comes from the incredible middle period of his career, along with works such as the Fifth and Sixth symphonies. Its first public performance in December 1808 was on a program including both those symphonies. Written in 1805-06, it had been heard in private subscription performance in 1807 at the home of Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven's patrons. In both the public and private premieres, Beethoven was the pianist. J.F. Reichhardt, one of the listeners at the public premiere, remembered that Beethoven played "with astounding cleverness and in the fastest possible tempi." He also especially noted that in the slow movement Beethoven "sang on the instrument with a profound melancholy that thrilled me." However, Reichhardt also complained: “There we sat from 6:30 till 10:30 in the most bitter cold and found by experience that one might easily have too much even of a good thing.” He noted he was stuck and couldn’t leave because he was seated next to Prince Lobkowitz. The complaint is entirely understandable when we realize that the concert contained not only this concerto and two symphonies, but also the Choral Fantasy and excerpts from the C-major Mass!

The slow movement deserves special attention. So simple in means, yet so profound in effect, it juxtaposes the rough vigor of the orchestra with the lyrical entreaties of the piano in a dialogue that finally leaves the orchestra subordinated to the will of the piano. Franz Liszt compared this movement to Orpheus taming the wild beasts. But Beethoven himself never offered any hints as to what its meaning may have been.

The first movement is unusual for its time in beginning with an unaccompanied statement pn the piano rather than with the full orchestral statement of the thematic materials that was customary in a Classical concerto. The third movement, which follows immediately on the heels of the slow movement, is a light-hearted rondo that occasionally leaves both pianist and orchestra madly scrambling after the notes, but also features the lyricism that seems to dominate so much of this concerto.

Béla Bartók
Born March 25, 1881 Nagyszentmiklos, Transylvania, Hungary
Died September 26, 1945, New York City, NY

Concerto for Orchestra

One of the towering figures of music in the first half of the 20th-century, Bela Bartók developed a uniquely personal style. It was based on his extensive research and field recording of folk music, first in his native Hungary and later throughout eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa. His books and collections of folk music remain important documents of ethnomusicological scholarship. What he found in his research was a totally different folk style from that of western European folk music. It was a style with strong Eastern influence, often biting dissonance, harsh and nasal tone colors and jagged, irregular rhythms.

Bartók's decision to leave Hungary in 1940 was a wrenching one. He had watched with horror Hitler's advancements; though he was in no immediate personal danger, everything about Nazism was abhorrent. His mother's death brought him to the final decision. But he was never to be truly happy in the United States. The man who was most comfortable in the homes of Hungarian peasants in the quiet countryside felt assaulted by the noise of New York City
Bartók also found it difficult to find work in the United States. Never particularly healthy, he was increasingly beset by illness, finally diagnosed as leukemia; his doctors and wife never told him about the diagnosis. By February 1943, when he collapsed during a series of lectures at Harvard University, he weighed only 87 pounds.

By May of that year, a number of musician friends had banded together to find a way to channel some money to Bartók. A direct gift or even loan was not feasible because Bartók’s pride would have prevented acceptance. Instead, a commission was made for an orchestral work to be performed by the Boston Symphony under Sergei Koussevitsky as a memorial to Koussevitsky’s wife, who had recently died. The money for the commission came from the foundation the conductor had set up after his wife’s death. Koussevitsky offered Bartók $1,000 (according to one source, the equivalent of about $14,000 today), with $500 in advance and $500 upon completion. When Bartók said he could accept no money until the composition was done, Koussevitsky was inspired to say that foundation rules required that the money be given in advance and he had no choice in the matter. No one, including Bartók, expected the composition to be finished. But confounding all expectations, Bartók was galvanized at the prospect of a performance by so renowned an orchestra. He completed the score in 54 days. Somewhat unwillingly, his doctors allowed him to attend rehearsals and the first performance, thus he was able to participate in the greatest public triumph of his career. Koussevitsky pronounced the work “the best orchestral piece of the last 25 years.” It almost instantly entered orchestra repertories. The rental records at Boosey and Hawkes, publishers of Bartók’s music, show 72 European performances between 1944 and 1950.

The title Concerto for Orchestra refers to the virtuosic treatment of the various sections of the orchestra and is obviously a tribute to the reputation of the Boston Symphony players. Bartók’s description in the Boston Symphony program identifies the virtuoso elements as the treatment of the brass instruments in the first movement, the strings in the last movement, and the pairs of instruments in the second movement. His description of the entire work was: “The general mood of the work represents – apart from the jesting second movement – a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.”

November 2017


John Towner Williams
Born February 8, 1932, Flushing, Long Island, New York

Simply reading the list of compositions by John Williams is amazing and it is fair to say that he has had a fabled career. But aside from his well-known film scores, his list of compositions also includes 15 concertos for various instruments and more than 20 compositions for various concert ensembles. Tonight’s performances of two of the concertos alongside some of his film music should give the listener a much broader picture of this extraordinary composer. The son of a jazz drummer/studio musician father, John Williams started piano lessons at 7 years old. Later, having played trumpet, trombone, and clarinet, he was a member of his school band at North Hollywood High School. Already he was arranging music for this band and, after being drafted into the Air Force, he was an arranger for various service bands. He had a very thorough classical training, and once said, when asked for advice for young composers, “On the technical side, the development of a sound, solid craft, is the best advice anyone can be given.” He said two of the things needed were, “The study of the great canon of western music….” and “a working familiarity with counterpoint.”

Film Music Excerpts
ET: Adventures on Earth
March from Raiders of the Lost Ark
Highlights from Jurassic Park
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Depending on which film score is considered his first, John Williams started writing film music in 1958 (Daddy-O) or in 1960 (first screen credits, Because They’re Young and I Passed for White). By the time of the first music on tonight’s program, the March from the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), he was an experienced composer of film music with the first Star Wars film (1977) and over 50 others under his belt. E.T. followed in 1982. The score of Jurassic Park, released in 1993, at the time was somewhat overshadowed by the Academy Award-winning score of Schindler’s List the same year, but it is still among his most popular scores. The most recent music to be heard this evening is the 2015 Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This music follows some 55 years of writing film scores – a remarkable achievement. Clearly, it is Williams’s ability to underline with music the emotions of the film and to write memorable themes associated with situations and characters that creates his success.

Concerto for Horn and Orchestra

This concerto was premiered by Dale Clevenger and the Chicago Symphony on November 29, 2003. The conductor was John Williams himself. Williams spoke of the horn’s “capacity to stir memories of antiquity. The very sound of the French horn conjures images stored in the collective psyche. It’s an instrument that invites us to ‘dream backward to the ancient time.’ Most cultures have had some form of horn in their histories. We remember the ram’s horn Shofar, calling us to battle or prayer… or the conch, ‘fabled shell instrument of the titans,’ or one can imagine the huge Viking horns that must have struck terror in the hamlets of northern Europe as the great ships were brought into the estuaries to begin their attacks. The horn stirs memories of fearful things, of powerful things, of noble and beautiful things!”

Williams attached a poetic quote to each of the movements. The first movement is titled “Angelus: Far far away, like bells ... At evening pealing.” Williams notes that the Angelus bell, which calls to prayer, is joined by the horn sending calls and signals to complete the picture. The second movement, “Battle of the Trees: Swift Oak ... Stout Guardian of the Door,” refers to a Celtic poem “which describes groves of trees transforming themselves into warriors and led in battle by the brave oak.” Percussion and horn vividly depict battle. “Pastorale: There Came a Day at Summer's Full” is the third movement but the quiet gives way to the fourth movement, “The Hunt: The Hart Loves the Highwood,” which shows the horn in the traditional role of hunting horn. The final movement is “Nocturne: The Crimson Day Withdraws” about which Williams said “…the day’s end grants repose and a simple song is offered.”

The Five Sacred Trees, Concerto for Bassoon & Orchestra

The bassoon concerto was written in 1993 for the New York Philharmonic and its principal bassoonist, Judith LeClair, who played the premiere in 1995 under Kurt Masur as part of the celebration the 150th anniversary of the Philharmonic. For his bassoon concerto, Williams took elements of Celtic myths about sacred trees influenced by the work of Robert Graves. The first movement, titled “Eó Mugna” refers to an oak tree. The second movement, “Tortan” refers to a tree associated with witchcraft. Third is “Eó Rossa” – a yew tree, a symbol of destruction and re-creation. Fourth is “Craeb Uisnig,” an ash tree which symbolizes strife. Dathi, the muse of poets, comes as the final movement. It was said to be the last tree to fall in the forest. Williams’ writing for the bassoon is masterful, as expected. Though scored for a very large orchestra, the music rarely features all sections at once. Instead the delicate writing allows the solo bassoon to show in all its beauty. There are many passages given to the soloist alone in spun-out, rhapsodic moments. Occasionally another solo instrument from the orchestra is featured alongside the bassoon.

Williams said, “Within the tree community there lies more music than anywhere else in the Western world. It is impossible to stand under the high arching boughs of ancient trees and not wonder if the architecture of cathedrals was not born of just such an experience.” Sacred trees are common in the folk tales of many cultures and often it is beneath such a tree that tales of the past were told.

El Paso Museums & Cultural Affairs Department

Programs and artists are subject to change without notice. The El Paso Symphony is made possible with the support of the City of El Paso Museums and Cultural Affairs Department and the Texas Commission on the Arts.