Program Notes

by Dr. Marcia Fountain

September 2018


Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born April 1, 1873, Oneg, district of Novgorod
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, op. 18

Though by the end of his career he was known as a touring virtuoso pianist, Rachmaninoff did not initially make his living this way. In the early years of his career, the piano was only a tool for presenting his own works; he considered himself primarily a composer. In fact, he studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory, but graduated with his degree in composition. In his youth,

Rachmaninoff was concerned with composition of operas, symphonies, chamber music and works for piano. He was very successful and toured widely, including a visit to the United States in 1908. This first visit to the States disappointed and exhausted him. "You know, in this accursed country, where you're surrounded by nothing but Americans and . . . 'business,' they are forever doing, clutching you from all sides and driving you on . . . I am very busy and very tired." Though he was offered the post of conductor with the Boston Symphony, he declined and returned to Russia to continue his very successful career there.

The Revolution of 1917, however, changed everything. Shortly after the outbreak of the revolution, Rachmaninoff received an invitation to perform in Stockholm. He took his family and left Russia in December 1917, never to return. At the age of 45, he was faced with earning a living in a completely new context. Again, he turned down conducting contracts offered from the United States but did take up residence here. He chose instead to make his living in performance. Becoming an active performing pianist required that he build up a repertory of other composers' works throughout the spectrum of keyboard music. This he did very successfully. With a large repertory, he toured extensively and even recorded works of Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Grieg, and Beethoven, as well as his own works.

As a pianist, he avoided exaggerated mannerisms and gave carefully thought-out, well-crafted performances. His enormous hands allowed an extraordinary technical ease, which he always put to the service of the music. Music critic Harold Schonberg said of him: "The tall, dour, lank, unsmiling figure of Sergei Rachaninoff with its seamed face and head of close-cropped (almost shaved) hair invariably reminded the public of a convict on the loose. No audience ever saw him unbend, ever saw that sorrowful Russian face relax, ever saw the least crack in his gravity. But at the piano those marvelous, infallible hands created bronzelike sonorities, welding the bronze into structures of imposing architectural solidity."

The strongest influence on his own music was that of Tchaikovsky, who had recognized the pianist's talents during Rachmaninoff's student years. As with Tchaikovsky, whose Symphony No. 4 will be heard on our October concert, emotional expression is never far from the surface in Rachmaninoff's music. He expressed his artistic credo in these words: “I try to make my music speak simply and directly that which is in my heart at the time I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful, or bitter, or sad, or religious. For composing music is as much a part of my living as breathing and eating. I compose music because I must give utterance to my thoughts.”

Just before and after his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory in 1893, Rachmaninoff achieved a number of successes with his compositions. But in 1897 his First Symphony was a total failure at its premiere. This experience threw the composer into a deep depression from which he could not seem to rouse himself. He had promised a new concerto for a London appearance but could not seem to bring himself to start on it. Finally, in desperation he went to a Dr. Nikolai Dahl, famous for his hypnotic cures. For days and days the composer lay on a couch while the doctor repeated over and over, "You will begin to write your concerto....You will work with great facility....The concerto will be of an excellent quality." Incredible or not, the cure worked, and the resulting Piano Concerto No. 2 was gratefully dedicated to the doctor.

The first movement's somber opening sounds almost like tolling bells but breaks into lyricism. After the nocturne-like second movement, the last movement features both driving rhythms and lyricism, ending triumphantly in C major. The concerto was premiered in Moscow in 1901 to immediate success. It remains the most popular of Rachmaninoff's concertos.

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, op. 27

Rachmaninoff began his Second Symphony in 1906 while staying in Dresden. The constant demand for his presence and his performances as a pianist in Russia had left him with no time at all for composition. He decided to go, along with his family, and spend several months almost completely incognito in Dresden during the winter months of 1906 and 1907 in order to have some time to himself. The decision was a wise one, since during this period he worked on a set of Russian songs that became his op. 6, his first piano sonata, and the symphonic poem Isle of Death. The major work from this time was the Second Symphony. It was particularly important to Rachmaninoff that this work be successful. His First Symphony had been written some ten years earlier, but its first performance in 1897 with Alexander Glazunov conducting had been disastrous. The success of his Second Piano Concerto in 1901 had partly vindicated him in his own mind for this failure, but the specter of that failure remained with him. Fortunately, the new work was an immediate success at its premiere on January 26, 1908. This time Rachmaninoff himself conducted.

The Second Symphony is a lengthy work, unified by the recurrence of the motto theme heard at the beginning of the first movement, as well as by the recurrence of other themes from the first three movements in the last movement. The influence of Tchaikovsky is plainly felt, both in the masterly handling of the orchestra and the sweep of the melodies. The total seriousness of the first movement is relieved by the placement of the scherzo as the second movement instead of in its traditional place as the third movement. Some have noted the resemblance of the scherzo's opening theme to the chant fragment "Dies Irae" from the Gregorian Requiem Mass. This is a motive that is frequent in Rachmaninoff's music. The melodies of the third, slow, movement represent Rachmaninoff at his best. The first appears in the strings and the second in the clarinet. Composer Patrick Piggott described this slow movement “as romantic as any music in the orchestral repertoire ̶ if by romantic we mean the expression, through lyrical melody and richly chromatic harmony, of a sentiment which can only be described as love.” The last movement expresses a carnival-like atmosphere and draws together all the preceding movements by quoting themes from them.

October 2018


Michael Daugherty
Born April 28, 1954, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Fire and Blood

Regular EPSO concert-goers may remember another composition by Daugherty, Tales of Hemingway for cello and orchestra, written for Zuill Bailey, which was performed here as part of a commission from a consortium of orchestras. Fire and Blood was written a little over 10 years before this. The composer has supplied these notes.

Fire and Blood (2003), a concerto for violin and orchestra, was commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The world premiere was given by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Neeme Jarvi, with Ida Kavafian, solo violin, at Symphony Hall, Detroit, Michigan on May 3, 2003.

In 1932, Edsel Ford commissioned the Mexican modernist artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) to paint a mural representing the automobile industry of Detroit. Rivera came to Detroit and worked over the next two years to paint four large walls of the inner courtyard at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Considered among his best work, Rivera’s extraordinary Detroit Industry murals have inspired me to create my own musical fresco for violin and orchestra. It was Rivera himself who predicted the possibility of turning his murals into music, after returning from a tour of the Ford factories: “In my ears, I heard the wonderful symphony which came from his factories where metals were shaped into tools for men’s service. It was a new music, waiting for the composer…to give it communicable form.”

I. Volcano
Before coming to Detroit, Rivera lived in Mexico City, surrounded by volcanoes. Fire is an important element in his murals, which depict the blaze of factory furnaces like erupting volcanoes. Volcanic fire also was associated with revolution by Rivera, an ardent member of the Mexican Communist party. He saw the creation of the Detroit murals as a way to further his revolutionary ideas. The music of the first movement responds to the fiery furnaces of Rivera’s imagination. The violinist plays virtuosic triple stops, while the orchestra explodes with pulsating energy. The composition alternates between repeated patterns in 7/4 time and polytonal passages that occur simultaneously in different tempos. It concludes with an extended violin cadenza accompanied by marimba and maracas.

II. River Rouge
At the Ford River Rouge Automobile Complex, located next to the Detroit River, Rivera spent many months creating sketches of workers and machinery in action. He was accompanied by his young wife, the remarkable Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1906-1954). She lived in constant pain as a result of polio in childhood and a serious bus accident at age 18 in Mexico City. Many of her self-portraits depict the suffering of her body. During her time with Rivera in Detroit, Kahlo nearly died from a miscarriage, as depicted in paintings such as Henry Ford Hospital and My Birth. The color of blood is everywhere in these works. She also had a passionate and playful side: she loved wearing colorful traditional Mexican dresses and jewelry, drinking tequila and singing at parties. Kahlo’s labors, grief, and zeal for life added another perspective to Rivera’s industry. This movement is dedicated to Frida Kahlo’s spirit. The solo violin introduces two main themes. The first theme is dissonant and chromatic, flowing like a red river of blood. The second is a haunting melody that Kahlo herself might have sung, longing to return to her native Mexico. The orchestra resonates with floating marimbas and string tremolo, echoing like a mariachi band in the distance. The orchestration is colorful, like the bright tapestries of her dress. While death and suffering haunt the music, there is an echo of hope.

III. Assembly Line
Rivera described his murals as a depiction of “towering blast furnaces, serpentine conveyor belts, impressive scientific laboratories, busy assembly rooms; and all the men who worked them all.” Rather than pitting man against machine, Rivera thought the collaboration of man and machine would bring liberation for the worker. The violin soloist in this final movement is like the worker, surrounded by a mechanical orchestra. The music is a roller coaster ride on a conveyor belt, moving rapidly in 7/8 time. This perpetual motion is punctuated by pizzicato strings, percussive whips, and brassy cluster chords. The percussion section plays factory noises on metal instruments like break drums and triangles, and a ratchet turns like the wheels of the machinery. In addition to this acceleration of multiple mechanical rhythms, the musical phrasing recalls the undulating wave pattern that moves from panel to panel in Rivera’s mural.

Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky
Born May 7, 1840, Votinsk, District of Viatka, Russia
Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36

Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony is the first of his symphonies that entered standard repertory. Begun in 1877 and finished in 1878, it was written during the time of his brief and disastrous marriage. The symphony is full of emotional display, but it is really impossible to say whether any of this is directly connected with his personal life, since all of his music exhibits these qualities. One commentator characterizes his music as showing "self-pity and emotional exhibitionism" but always containing a basic sincerity.

Though Tchaikovsky refused to provide a programmatic description of the Symphony No. 4 to the public, he did supply one in a letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck. Mme. von Meck had approached Tchaikovsky the previous year, offering financial support. To what extent he provided this description in order to satisfy her desire for one, or to what extent it represents what he really felt, is impossible to say.

Of the lengthy first movement, which carries the bulk of the emotional weight, he said that the opening fanfare represented Fate: "This is Fate, the fatal power which hinders one in the pursuit of happiness." Other themes in the first movement represent depression and efforts at escape from reality into dreams: "We see that life is only an everlasting alternation of somber reality and fugitive dreams of happiness." The second movement represents melancholy, sadness, and reminiscences: "One mourns the past and has neither the courage nor the will to begin a new life." The third movement (still according to Tchaikovsky's description) with its capricious mood changes represents escape into vagueness and unreality. "These are disconnected pictures which come and go in the brain of the sleeper. They have nothing to do with reality; they are unintelligible, bizarre. . . ." In the fourth movement, the attempt to escape fate is represented as a reaching out to the happiness of others; but the festive atmosphere is interrupted by the Fate motive. "Rejoice in the happiness of others ̶ and you can still live." Any great music is of course far more than any such verbal description as that supplied above. Doubtless Tchaikovsky, were he alive today, would be horrified to discover these comments printed on programs when his Symphony No. 4 is performed!

November 2018

The Music of the Night

Andrew Lloyd Webber
Born March 22, 1948, London, England

Excerpts from musicals

With musicals to choose from like The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, it is certainly difficult to decide which excerpts to pick for a presentation like this evening’s. Lloyd Webber’s career spans well over 40 years though the best-known works, such as these, date from the decades of the 70s and 80s. From the beginning the composer took his own path toward the stage, taking some elements from the traditional musical and but also some from multitudinous other sources. The release of music for Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita in audio albums in the 1970s before there were staged performances was an innovative approach. The balance between spoken dialogue and music in his musicals has favored music, making choices of favorite moments that much harder. What is it about the music that has such staying power? Commentator John Snelson claims the unifying stylistic elements in his music are “pastiche, the rock riff and the lyric ballad.” Possibly, but it seems fairer to say that his ear for diversity of style, both myriad popular styles of the late 20th and early 21st Century and classical styles, especially, of course, opera, has served him well. While his music is certainly eclectic, it still manages to be his own. We can certainly be grateful for that!

Modeste Mussorgsky
Born March 21, 1839, Karevo, district of Pskov, Russia
Died March 28, 1881, St. Petersburg, Russia

Pictures at an Exhibition

Pictures At An Exhibition was inspired by an exhibit of drawings and paintings by Victor Hartmann. In histories of Russian art, Hartmann is at best a footnote. He was primarily an architect and designer rather than a painter and his early death at the age of 39 meant few of his works were actually constructed. But he was a close friend of Mussorgsky and of the other composers in the group in St. Petersburg that came to be known as “The Five.” After his death these friends organized a memorial exhibition of his works in 1874. Some 400 works were included, but only about 100 are known to still exist and only 6 of these can be identified as corresponding to the movements in Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Many of the pictures were sketches of buildings that interested Hartmann because of their architectural details. He had traveled widely and sketched avidly. Often he would put people in his sketches in order to show the scale of the buildings. Mussorgsky, however, was not interested in the buildings but rather the people and constructed little vignettes about them to illustrate with his music.

Pictures was written for piano. Though Mussorgsky, a fairly skilled pianist, played the composition for his friends as he worked on it, there was no known public performance during his lifetime. After the composer’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov undertook the revision of all Mussorgsky’s compositions for publication. Some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s revisions were rather heavy-handed. But when Mussorgsky’s original manuscript in the Saltykov-Schedrin Public Library in St. Petersburg finally became accessible to western scholars after 1975 it was found that in fact, the published (Rimsky-Korsakov) version differed little from the original. Rimsky-Korsakov altered some dynamic markings and misread some of Mussorgsky’s rhythmic intentions in the Goldenberg movement.
To many musicians the composition seemed to cry out for orchestration. It is awkwardly written for the piano but is full of color. It was not until the middle of the 20th Century that it began to be performed frequently by pianists in its original form. A partially orchestrated version was performed in 1891. An orchestration was made by the English musician, Sir Henry Wood, in 1915 after he heard a performance on piano at a meeting of the Musical Association. It was often played over the next decade, but Wood withdrew it in the 1930s and it has only recently been returned to public performance.

Serge Koussevitsky commissioned Maurice Ravel to make what has become the most famous transcription of the Pictures and the one that will be played tonight. Ravel’s orchestral version was premiered on October 19, 1922 in Paris. Koussevitzky had made it a condition of the commission that he retain sole performance rights until 1929, and even after this time, royalties for performance remained high. Thus the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned its own arranger, Lucien Cailliet (who composed the score for the film The Ten Commandments), to make another transcription, which premiered in 1937. Others who have orchestrated the Pictures include Leopold Stokowski in 1938 and Vladimir Ashkenazy in 1982. One of the more unusual arrangements was that by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1971.
Pictures opens with a promenade theme intended to depict Mussorgsky wandering through the exhibition; this theme recurs at various points. The first picture is "Gnomus," taken from a drawing of "a little gnome awkwardly walking on deformed legs." It was probably a design for a nutcracker meant as a child's toy. "The Old Castle" shows a troubadour (represented by a saxophone in the orchestra) serenading before a medieval Italian castle. "The Tuileries" represents children playing and fighting in these famous Parisian gardens. "Bydlo" means "cattle" in Polish; the picture shows an old ox cart whose driver is singing a mournful song. "Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells" is a costume sketch for a ballet titled "Trilbi." “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle" depicts an argument between two Jews, one rich and one poor, from the ghetto of Sandomierz near Warsaw.
The "Marketplace at Limoges" represents women chattering and gossiping as they stand by the marketing carts. "Catacombs" represents the painter and a friend on a guided tour of the Roman catacombs. The second part of this movement, titled "Cum mortuis in lingua mortua" ("with the dead in a dead language") is a restatement of the promenade theme. Mussorgsky said of it, "The creative spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me to the skulls, calls out to them, and the skulls begin to glow dimly from within." The "Hut on Fowls Legs" is a depiction of the home of Baba Yaga, a legendary Russian witch. The picture was a design for a clock. This movement leads straight into the finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev." This was a design for a magnificent gate to be built at Kiev. It was entered in a contest to pick a design, but no design was picked, and the gate was never built.

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.