Program Notes: November 18, 2014 at Dallas City Performance Hall

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The Lark Ascending

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born 12 October, 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England
Died 26 August, 1958 in London

As a child, Vaughan Williams played violin.  He was no Paganini, and once remarked that the violin had saved him from the piano.  But he understood how to write for the instrument, an understanding eloquently demonstrated in his exquisite romance for violin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending.  Beethoven wrote two romances for violin and orchestra, but the analogy is distant.  Vaughan Williams was not psychologically attuned to the dramatic 19th-century view of the virtuoso.  None of his compositions for soloist and orchestra is a large work; this one is decidedly evocative rather than confrontational or daring.

At the head of Vaughan Williams’s score appear lines from George Meredith’s Poems and Lyrics of the Joys of Earth.

He rises and begins to round.

He drops the silver chain of sound,

Of many links without a break,

In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

*  *  *  *

For singing till his heaven fills,

‘Tis love of earth that he instils,

And ever winging up and up,

Our valley is his golden cup,

And he the wine which overflows

To life us with him as he goes

*  *  *  *

Till lost on his aërial rings

In light, and then the fancy sings.

While the poem does not determine the music in the sense of direct musico-pictorial description, both the opening and closing of The Lark Ascending bear direct relationship to Meredith’s couplets.  Frank Howes has wryly observed that:

This lark is a pentatonic bird with a propensity for leaving out the third and becoming tetratonic.

The piece has a key signature of one sharp, implying G major.  Characteristically, Vaughan Williams opts for the modal progressions that flavor so much of his music.  The work takes its shape from three melismatic violin cadenzas without bar lines, emulating the exploratory ascent of the bird.  Enveloped within the cadenzas are three lyrical orchestral sections.  The outer two are in 6/8 time; the second cadenza heralds a tranquil switch to 2/4.  We always feel that the soloist is fully integrated into the orchestral texture, rather than being pitted against it.

In this most pastoral of movements, the distractions of everyday life seem remote.  Rather, we are caught up in the joyous swoop and soar of aerial flight, momentarily suspending humanhood in favor of a literal and figurative bird’s-eye view of the Cotswold countryside that inspired Vaughan Williams.

The score calls for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, triangle, solo violin, and strings.

Symphony No.3, “The Camp Meeting”

Charles Ives
Born 20 October 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut
Died 19 May 1954 in New York City


The distinguished American composer Elliott Carter, writing in a 1944 issue of the periodical Modern Music, observed:

A quick glance at Ives’ total output . . . reveals many interesting facts. The music shows a rather spasmodic development, from the production of youthful organist with a classical background playing in a Presbyterian church, to the elaborate works most of us are familiar with. There has been, from the start, a preoccupation with hymns, marches, and other native American music.

The Third Symphony is a good example of the Americana that Carter correctly noted. Its roots are in some of Ives’s earliest childhood memories.

As a boy growing up in rural southwest Connecticut, young Charlie Ives attended outdoor religious festivals called camp meetings with his family. A large tent served as a gathering place for prayer, preaching, and communal singing, all exhorting attendees to be born again. Ives’s father George, a trumpeter and bandmaster, led the hymns either with trumpet or with his own  voice. These revival meetings yielded the descriptive titles of the Third Symphony’s movements: “Old Folks Gatherin,” “Children’s Day,” and “Communion.”

The symphony breaks from tradition in several ways. It employs a small orchestra, with one per part on woodwinds. The overall scale is modest, too, limited to three movements. Rather than the conventional fast-slow-fast order, Ives frames a boisterous central movements with two calm, reverent outer ones. Still, there are connections to traditional forms, and the Third Symphony was one of Ives’s last concessions to European tradition before he abandoned that heritage in favor of more adventurous experiments. In his Memos, the composer later described it as “a kind of crossways between the older ways and the newer ways.”

Essentially this symphony is about everyday observances of Protestant faith. Ives incorporated several familiar hymns, including Azmon (“Oh For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”),  Erie (“What a friend we have in Jesus”), The Happy Land, Woodworth (“Just as I am, without one plea”) and Cleansing Fountain (“There is a fountain filled with blood”).  In his years as a church organist (1900 to 1902), he had improvised on these and other hymn tunes for preludes and postludes to church services. The symphony, which he began sketching in 1904, grew out of original organ music composed at that time. Unfortunately those early pieces have not survived. He revised the Third Symphony in 1909, and it was substantially complete in 1911.

Ironically, no performance took place until 1946. Ives’s writings indicate he figured he might never hear this piece performed, and if any performance did occur, it would take place in a church. Accordingly, he composed in a conservative style, with straightforward, uncomplicated settings of the hymns. While the viewpoint is that of a child, the musical technique is clearly adult. “Old Folks Gatherin’” is related to sonata form, with an introduction followed by an imitative, quasi-fugato main theme. “Children’s Day” has both the subliminal energy of children at play and the slightly subdued atmosphere of kids in their Sunday best who recognize that perhaps it’s not appropriate to be quite so rambunctious as usual. All the same, joy and energy prevail with hops, skips, and jumps.

Biographer Jan Swafford calls the finale, “Communion,” “probably the most complex and sustained polyphonic movement Ives had written by then.” The compositional approach is one he would adopt in many subsequent works, where the background music gradually moves to the foreground, with the final statement of the Woodworth hymn tune the clearest one. This technique, which Ives specialist J. Peter Burkholder calls ‘cumulative,’ reflects the influence of Brahms, with development of a musical fragment occurring earlier and throughout the movement. It is also related to the organic technique Sibelius employs in his symphonies.

Ives scored the Third Symphony for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trombone, timpani, bells ad lib., and strings.

Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K.466

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born 27 January, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died 5 December, 1791 in Vienna, Austria

The piano concerto occupied Mozart throughout his brief, productive career. Only two are in minor keys.  That statistic alone would alert us that there is something different about the two concerti in minor mode, K.466 in D minor and K.491 in C minor.  The D minor work was composed first, and was completely unlike any concerto (or symphony, for that matter) that Mozart had written before.  That the work still communicates its electricity and drama to us for all its familiarity is one measure of its genius.

Fifteen of Mozart’s 27 piano concerti date from 1782 to 1786. These were immensely fertile years for him, coinciding with his greatest financial and social success among the Viennese aristocracy. Most of the concerti were written for his own use, that is, Mozart performed them himself, conducting from the keyboard. The piano concerti from the mid-1780s are of the highest possible quality.  Mozart had reached the creative peak of full maturity, and his keyboard technique was formidable.

The D minor concerto is one of three that he composed in 1785.  The autograph score is dated 11 February 1785, and we know that Mozart played the piece on a Lenten season subscription concert that month.

A surprise for Vienna’s conservative audience

One wonders what his Viennese audience must have thought of this explosive, agitated, restless music.  Certainly the piano part was exceptionally difficult, more so than any of its predecessors.  But that first audience would not likely have noticed the demanding keyboard runs.  More likely they were taken aback by the ominous, stormy character of the music and the peculiar relationship between the orchestra and the soloist.

This concerto breaks in many ways from everything Mozart had written previously.  For starters, there is no singable melody at the outset.  The orchestral exposition is built on syncopations (rhythmic uncertainty) and moves rapidly to passages of chromatic tension (harmonic uncertainty).

When the soloist enters, it is with an entirely new theme that has not yet been stated by the orchestra.  That entrance establishes a pattern for this concerto that is different from its predecessors:  the pianist has a great deal of musical material to itself, not shared by the orchestra.  That is not to say the orchestra is slighted.  To the contrary, Mozart’s orchestral writing in the concerto is thoroughly symphonic, requiring a level of orchestral virtuosity as demanding as any of the late symphonies.  His genius lies in the way he has integrated the soloist with the orchestra, sustaining the nervous energy level for maximum emotional impact.

The D minor concerto was Mozart’s best known instrumental work in the nineteenth century, and is usually heralded as Mozart’s prescient realization of the romantic movement in music.  The work held particular appeal for Beethoven, who wrote a cadenza for the first movement that has virtually eclipsed all others; no Mozart cadenza survives for this concerto.

The slow movement is a large A-B-A structure whose outer sections are an operatic cantilena for the piano.  A raging G minor middle section jolts the equilibrium of the otherwise tranquil Romanze, reminding us that the darkness of the first movement has not been eradicated.

Mozart’s rondo finale returns to D minor with energy and passion.  This Allegro assai is more concerto-like and less symphonic than the first movement, opening with a ‘Mannheim rocket’ [a sharply ascending arpeggio figure] from the soloist that establishes an electric energy level. A measured march-like theme eventually supersedes the rocket. Possibly as a concession to his conservative Viennese audience, Mozart closes with a transformation of the march theme in D major, ending the concerto with a brilliant flourish.

The concerto is scored for flute, two oboes, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo piano and strings.

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2014

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