David Danzmayr, conductor
Ellen Connors, bassoon
The Jon Mac Anderson Program Notes underwritten by Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur LLP
Richard Strauss (1864-1949): Serenade in E-flat for Thirteen Wind Instruments, Op. 7,
Instrumentation: Scored for standard double winds, four horns and contrabassoon
Duration: 10 minutes
Despite living through half of the twentieth century, there is little in the music of Richard Strauss that reflects the progressive tendencies of his contemporaries, like Stravinsky or Schoenberg or many others. Rather, Strauss remained immersed in the romantic world of the late 19th century. In the days before he made his name as the composer of bigger-than-life concert pieces like Don Juan or Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) or his highly successful operas, Strauss fell under the influence of classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven, as well as Mendelssohn and Schumann.
Such influences were passed to him by his early teachers, among them his father, principal hornist of the Munich Court Orchestra, and August Tombo, the orchestra’s harpist and the man who taught the prodigious young Strauss the rudiments of piano and composition. Although he attended his first Wagner opera at the age of ten, it was some time before he began experimenting with the language of the late romantics. For now, Strauss was a classicist through and through, as exemplified by his Op. 7 Wind Serenade.
Comprising a single movement, Strauss constructed his score according to the basic sonata-form blueprint—with an exposition and reprise in the expected keys— save for the middle section. Instead of developing ideas introduced earlier in the piece, he launches into the key of B minor, repeating a small motif heard earlier (listen for the opening to wind down and the extended oboe solo, the latter which brings the exposition, in E flat, to a close and ushers the distantly related key of B minor).
Though hardly the stuff of his mature work, Strauss’ youthful Serenade reveals a natural flair for orchestration. His reliance on four horns (an unabashed nod to his father, the horn player), particularly notable at the start of the re-orchestrated reprise, lends warmth and depth to the ensemble. The Serenade was also the work that helped launch Strauss’ compositional career. Written when he was only seventeen and about ready to embark on his school examinations, the score was premiered in Dresden in 1881 and published the following year. Before long it was taken up by Hans Bülow and the Meinigen Court Orchestra and from there Strauss was well on his way to becoming, in his own humble words, not a first-rate composer but “a first-class, second-rate composer.”
Hector Villa-Lobos (1887-1959): Ciranda Das Sete Notas
Instrumentation: Scored for solo bassoon and strings
Duration: 10 minutes
Brazilian Hector Villa-Lobos was born to a librarian father who was also an amateur cellist. His father imparted the greatest early influence on the musical boy. Young Hector soaked up a great deal of knowledge from the many musical evenings that took place in the Villa-Lobos house, though his father likely never predicted that his son would develop into their country’s greatest classical composer. By and large, Hector rejected formal training but was music hungry and talented enough to learn on his own and everything he did, whether playing guitar on the streets, cello in theater orchestras, or traveling through the Amazon, fed that hunger.
The fantasy Ciranda das Sete Notas—literally, Round Dance of Seven Notes—from 1933, reflects these various influences, and the European tradition which Villa-Lobos also incorporated. Comprising three main sections, the work opens with a seven-note scale, with two scales acting as the basis for the entire composition—a C major ascending scale and a chromatic descending scale that runs counter to the principal idea and enriches the C major harmony. Villa-Lobos soon introduces a more spirited theme that plays on the triplet motif from the end of the scale, building the Allegro opening with these ideas. Along the way he incorporates exotic harmonies drawn from the streets of Brazil and the concert halls of Paris, where he also lived and learned.
Following a brief hold, the music swings in a new, faster direction. Here Villa-Lobos introduces a naive waltz idea which he juxtaposes with slower, darker, mysterious passages featuring cloudy harmonies, thinner textures, and weirdly mournful bassoon octaves. This middle section closes with a deep rocking ostinato over which the bassoon sings a plaintive version of the waltz, as if remembering it from some long-lost place. The third and final section is nostalgic in character, betraying the rich romantic European idiom which Villa-Lobos, for all his love of indigenous Brazilian music, was never able to forsake. A slow final iteration of the seven-note scale and a whispered C major chord brings this curious and attractive eleven-minute work to a satisfying close.
Vilém Tauský (1910–2004): Coventry: Meditation for Strings
Instrumentation: Scored for string orchestra
Duration: 10 minutes
Born in Moravia, Vilém Tauský’s mother, who sang under Mahler at the Vienna State Opera, and his uncle, operetta composer Leo Fall, paved the way for Tauský’s future. His parents pressed him to pursue law but Tauský, who had designs on composing and conducting, enrolled at the Brno Conservatory, where he came under the influence of Janáček. At the Brno Opera he served as repetiteur, where he prepared repertoire for a number of great singers and composers, Richard Strauss among them. When Tauský stepped in at the last minute for the ailing resident conductor, his conducting career officially began. But in 1939 Tauský, a Jew, was forced to flee the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Though he temporarily found safe haven in Paris and Monte Carlo, he soon walked away from professional work to serve the Czech army in exile, where he organized and conducted a military band. Tauský eventually made his way to England, where he met his wife and spent the remainder of his life (he lived to 93). On the podium, his work was both broad and eclectic, ranging from operatic performances with the Royal Opera and Covent Garden to Dvořák symphonies with the BBC, and included recordings of light opera and work with comedian Benny Hill.
Though composed in 1979, the single movement Coventry captures feelings and events the composer experienced following the blitz on Coventry three decades earlier. Tauský was among those Czech soldiers sent in to clear up after the raid:
“… we were sent to Coventry, but there was no Coventry. Everywhere you looked there was only the tower of the old cathedral standing out against the night sky. With bodies lying around and the burning it was only the tower which seemed to offer a symbol of hope…”
The ten-minute composition begins eerily, its advanced harmonies typical of the language of the twentieth century. Slowly an element of the archaic seeps in, first as a series of mysterious chords and then with ghostly strains of the St. Wenceslas chorale, an ancient Czech hymn. Tauský, proud of his Czech origins, would have known Joseph Suk’s own Meditation. That work, which incidentally was performed by ProMusica’s principal strings this past March, incorporates the chorale that Suk wrote on the eve of WWI, hoping to inspire his countrymen’s quest for Czech national freedom. In Tauský’s hands, the ancient melody becomes both an elegy to the dead and an apt musical metaphor of the once noble cathedral that warfare reduced to ruins.
W.A. Mozart (1756-1791): Symphony in D Major, K. 504, “Prague”
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani and strings
Duration: 25 minutes
Prague was very good to Amadeus Mozart. Although Austrian by birth, Vienna’s appreciation for Mozart, who moved from Salzburg to the capital at the age of 25, was fickle. But beginning in 1787, when Mozart traveled to Prague for the first time on the heels of the success of his opera The Marriage of Figaro, he found himself something of a national hero. He was celebrated and embraced everywhere he went, the Bohemian’s demonstrating an unprecedented affection for the man and his music. Mozart would return to Prague four more times in as many years—indeed, he was in Prague in 1791 when he suffered the onset of the illness that ultimately led to his death—and composed his operas Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito for Prague audiences. Anecdotal or not, Mozart’s supposed words, “Meine Prager verstehen mich” (“My Praguers understand me”) certainly capture the appreciation for his music he found in Prague and often felt was lacking back home.
It is not known if what became known as the “Prague” Symphony was actually composed for a scheduled visit to the city. The score was finished in early December of 1786 but Mozart didn’t arrive in Prague until January 11, 1787. Regardless, the D major Symphony received its premiere in Prague on January 19, 1787 during a concert that also featured Mozart improvising music at the piano from his wildly successful Marriage of Figaro, and has been linked to the city ever since. Mozart would later declare the day of the work’s premiere to have been “among the happiest of [his] life.”
At that time, one would expect four movement symphonies from Mozart’s pen, yet the D major consists of but three. The work opens in grand style, with an expansive introduction almost operatic in nature (those familiar with his opera Don Giovanni will certainly sense foreshadowing of that score), in what may be the longest symphonic introduction to this point. The ensuing Allegro changes gears immediately, its joyous character buoyantly propelled forward by the syncopated violins at the start of the Allegro proper. Over the course of the movement, Mozart introduces no less than six themes, some of which grow effortlessly out of one another. The movement clocks in around thirteen minutes in length, as long as many Italian symphonies up to this time, and thus looks towards the sprawling symphonies of Mozart’s Viennese successor, Beethoven.
The 6/8 Andante, whose triple-time feel allows it to also stand in for the expected Minuet, is a delicious example of the thirty-year-old Mozart’s musical genius. In the span of some seven minutes, he spins out an entire world—grace, drama, humor, and pathos—revealing his miraculous command of ideas. Mozart closes his 38th dancing effortlessly between the nimble counterpoint at the start and a rather robust style normally associated with Beethovenian drama. In between keep an ear out for the generous wind writing: historians have pointed out that Bohemia possessed some of Europe’s most brilliant wind players and Mozart may have been consciously playing to their strengths. But regardless for whom he was writing—his fellow Viennese, his Praguers, or posterity—we all continue to be the fortunate beneficiaries of Mozart’s unforgettable and undeniable gifts.
© Marc Moskovitz