Stravinsky & Beethoven

Gavin George, piano
David Danzmayr, conductor

Program Notes

The three works on tonight’s program are linked by their indebtedness to music’s Classic period. With his Pulcinella Suite for chamber orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, one of the 20th century’s foremost avant-garde composers, found inspiration in the music of an earlier time. Among the most beloved of Mozart’s many great piano concerti, the stunning C Major Piano Concerto remains a timeless classic. And we conclude with Beethoven’s First Symphony, a work indebted to the classical style of Haydn and Mozart that nevertheless displays vital characteristics of the composer yet to come.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Pulcinella Suite for Chamber Orchestra
Scored for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, and strings. Duration is 20 minutes.

If one were to query music historians about the most influential composers of the twentieth century, three names would inevitably rise to the top of any list: Béla Bartók, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky (though not necessarily in that order). Of the three, the careers of Bartók and Schoenberg can be described primarily as moving on a linear, musical path: Bartók looked to the music of the surrounding countryside and infused his scores with national flavor; Schoenberg came to regard the 19th century musical vernacular as exhausted and sought to free music of its shackles by embracing atonality (ultimately leading to highly dissonant scores that treated all pitches as equals). Stravinsky, by contrast, is much harder to classify, as his style continually developed and defied expectation. By 1913, the Russian-born composer had gained an international reputation as an enfant terrible, a consequence largely of his ballet scores, culminating in the Rite of Spring, whose primitive rhythms and themes set off a notorious riot at its premiere. Yet two factors were undeniable: first, Stravinsky, in collaboration with ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, was creating music unlike any heard before; second, the man was a genius.

Yet time and again Stravinsky proved unwilling to keep to any one musical path and success in one direction was often followed by his venturing elsewhere. It was this trait that led the composer into the world of neo-classicism, among the composer’s (and the century’s) most important “isms,” though only one of any number of “isms” that Stravinsky himself pursued. Pulcinella was the consequence of Diaghilev’s suggestion that Stravinsky look to some “delightful 18th century music” of Pergolesi that the ballet director had recently come across, as the source for a new stage work. Though at first reluctant, Stravinsky took the advice and plunged into the earlier composer’s music. Stravinsky crafted a new ballet that fused portions of 18th century Italian music with his own personal idiom. Stravinsky, in Dialogues and a Diary, had the following to say about this discovery and what it meant to his future work, and the critical reaction he faced as a consequence:

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late works became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too. No critic understood this at the time and I was therefore attacked for being a pasticheur, chided for composing ‘simple’ music, blamed for deserting ‘modernism,’ accused of renouncing my ‘true Russian heritage’.

The original ballet, composed in Switzerland between 1919-1920, and first performed by Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet at the Paris Opera in 1920, was scored for a chamber orchestra of thirty-three players and three singers. The subject of the ballet was Pulcinella, a hero and trickster associated with the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte. In Stravinsky’s ballet, all the local girls are in love with Pulcinella, despite being betrothed to others. By way of disguises and cunning, Pulcinella both manages to fend off all the jealous men and sees that each is properly married, and in the end even Pulcinella finds a wife. A few years later Stravinsky returned to his score, reduced the orchestra still further and whittled the ballet’s twenty numbers down to eight, creating the twenty-minute version performed tonight (its premiere was given in 1922 by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra). Minus the dancers and singers, we are left with the music’s essence—the wry, unexpected harmonies and transparent colors of a modern master putting his spin on the 18th century.

Although we now know that some of the music thought to have been by Pergolesi is actually attributable to a number of Italian contemporaries, in the end it matters little. The critics may have taken offense to Stravinsky’s backward glance, but his brilliant and witty score proved so popular that Stravinsky reduced his suite still further, creating the Suite Italienne, for cello and piano of 1925 and the “Suite for Violin and Piano after Themes, Fragments, and Pieces by Pergolesi” of 1932.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467
Scored for flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano. Duration is 29 minutes.

Not every composer succeeds equally well in every domain but one would be hard pressed to find the chink in Mozart’s musical armor. His symphonies, particularly his last several, have arguably never been surpassed in inspiration and execution, his operas project the full range of human emotion, the religious works reside in a heavenly firmament and his chamber music finds a faithful dialogue amongst the players involved. But perhaps nowhere did Mozart strike a more perfect balance between forces as in his concertos. Perhaps to fully appreciate Mozart’s concerti, one needs to understand how others wrote for soloists before and during his time, for generally composers sought to promote the soloist at the expense of the accompaniment. For Mozart, the concerto meant something else entirely—it provided a vehicle of finding ways to bring out the best of both worlds without relegating either. Mozart certainly had ample opportunity to explore his options: concerti for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet (sadly lost), horn (5), violin (5), and those for various combinations, including one for flute and harp and another for violin and viola. Then there are the twenty-seven concerti for piano and for good measure, another for two pianos. Given that Mozart composed his piano concerti for himself (along, of course, with the violin concerti), we can assume that the genre held a position of particular importance for the pianist-composer.

While in many respects Mozart helped raise every genre in which he composed to unprecedented heights, he attained something special with his concerti. Here Mozart almost single-handedly established what we now regard as the 18th century concerto form. And his piano concerti serve as the pinnacle of the genre. What is also implicit in this concerto is Mozart’s own tampering with the formal outlines that he himself had helped establish. Note, for example, the orchestra’s first movement opening theme, for this is the theme with which the soloist “should” begin after the orchestra lays the groundwork. But as if wholly unconcerned with “shoulds,” the soloist goes his own way, first with a series of flourishes and then, stubbornly avoiding the main theme, heading off in any number of other directions, including a sudden shift to a darker, minor realm. Indeed, the pianist never plays the opening theme at all! And although the development section hardly touches on earlier material, another daring Mozartean gambit, this Allegro maestoso proved one of Mozart’s most densely argued (that is, intense dialogue between soloist and orchestra) concerto movements.

The well-known and moving Andante is one of Mozart’s most expressive concerto movements, a soaring cantilena movement that features a new richness of textures and ideas, evidenced by the muted upper strings in the opening dreamlike theme. As compared to the first movement’s orchestral introduction, this one “behaves properly,” for it contains all of the material to be subsequently developed; indeed, Mozart steers his material through a maze of tonal regions, from the opening key of F major through C minor, G minor, B-flat major, F minor and A-flat major, before eventually making its way back home to F. The charming and witty C major finale, marked Allegro vivace, features several sprightly ideas and again promotes a fluid exchange of ideas between the orchestra and soloist, evidenced in its “call and response” passagework. A piano cadenza toward the movement’s close is followed by an ever so brief, yet triumphant, ending.

A few final words about the concerto: crafted in 1785, it was a product of an intense period of music making that also included a visit by the composer’s father (a daunting and controlling figure, to say the least) and a brutally cold Viennese winter. Mozart’s piano was carted out of the house almost daily for concerts, the composer hosted a chamber music evening that included Haydn and Mozart’s newest set of string quartets (dedicated to the older composer) and his teaching schedule continued unabated. Yet somehow through it all Mozart managed yet another miraculous work, this C major concerto, composed just four weeks after the stormy and brooding D minor concerto. Following the despair of the earlier work, perhaps Mozart needed a musical antidote. If so, the key of C major must have been the best medicine, an uplifting and buoyant key and one of the composer’s favorites. The score’s charm, its moving and uplifting themes, and its spectacular craftsmanship on the one hand, and its occasional childlike simplicity on the other, have made it an audience favorite as well.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21
Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, kettledrums and strings. Duration is 26 minutes.

Beethoven came to Vienna in 1792 to study with Joseph Haydn, after his earlier hope of studying with Mozart died with that composer’s death a year earlier. Beethoven later claimed to have learned nothing from Haydn but we know better. Haydn may not have granted the young Beethoven the attention he so desired, but whether from lessons or his thorough knowledge of the older man’s scores, Beethoven did indeed learn a great deal from “Papa Haydn,” at that time arguably the world’s most famous living composer. Haydn’s spirit is evident throughout Beethoven’s inaugural symphony, from the first movement’s slow, stately introduction and the rushing “scherzo” quality of the third to the witty sonata-rondo finale. Indeed, when the symphony was premiered in Vienna, under Beethoven’s direction, one critic found it a “caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity.” It is not known how Beethoven reacted to such criticism, but as one bent on simultaneously distancing himself from Haydn and yet inheriting the great symphonic tradition from the older master, it seems unlikely Beethoven was amused.

If the First Symphony doesn’t exhibit the revolutionary traits found in Beethoven’s Third (“Eroica”) or Fifth Symphony, it nevertheless reveals a composer with radical ideas. Listen carefully, for example, to the opening chord. Not only does Beethoven begin his very first symphony with a dissonance (still a rarity in 1800), it’s not even in the “proper” key of C major. Rather, Beethoven seems to be playing a joke on his listeners (another trait inherited from the often humorous Haydn), for the chord resolves to F major, the fourth degree of the “home” key of C. The fact that winds and not the upper strings dominate the texture of the opening (and indeed much of the symphony as a whole) is another mark of the renegade composer, who seems intent on re-inventing traditional approach to orchestration. Indeed, Beethoven would be taken to task by the critics for his heavy-handed wind writing throughout the First Symphony, but at this stage he was no doubt bent on exploring new orchestral colors, including a heightened involvement of the winds. Following this unexpected opening, Beethoven begins the inexorable drive toward the Allegro proper, with its greatly anticipated C major resolution. If what unfolds from this point on is somewhat more routine (a first theme cut from Classical cloth, the strongly contrasting subordinate theme and a development constructed almost entirely from primary material), the underlying power and accompanying drive reveal precisely those qualities that Beethoven would continuously explore and exploit in each of the symphonies that followed.

The courtly theme that opens the second movement Andante is reminiscent of the slow movements of Haydn or Mozart. Yet Beethoven also offers up clues that he intends to bring increased depth to what was formerly a light-hearted movement. By casting his Andante in sonata form, a design far more sophisticated than those typically assigned to slow movements just a generation earlier, and offering expanded development of his ideas, evidenced by the movement’s contrapuntal passagework, Beethoven brings weightiness to a movement that once offered the listener relief from the far more serious movement that preceded it. Although the third movement harbors a conventional Menuetto label, in reality it is anything but. As suggested by its Allegro molto e vivace tempo indication (“very fast and lively”), this is hardly the aristocratic 3/4-time minuet of Mozart’s day, but rather a movement that rushes relentlessly toward the finale. And yet despite the tremendous forward momentum Beethoven has established, he is not yet entirely ready to deliver. He thus opens his finale with an Adagio, and an absurd one at that, built on nothing more than the most basic scale that adds a note with each repetition. Only when the pitch F is attained, C major’s tension-filled dominant seventh that demands immediate resolution, is the music finally thrust into the Allegro proper, heralded by a flurry of ascending sixteenth-notes that spill into the good-natured opening theme. What follows is a Haydn-esque creation, combining the sophisticated and witty reliance on a hybrid of sonata and rondo forms, of which Haydn was the undisputed master, and even a theme that hints at Haydn’s own Symphony No. 88 finale. Despite Beethoven’s efforts to best his teacher at his own game, Haydn’s miraculous powers of invention were simply not to be outdone. Still, having more or less played by the master’s rules, a relatively young Beethoven could now begin to put the 18th century behind him and forge his own path, shattering old molds and casting new ones with nearly every symphony that followed.

(C) Marc Moskovitz