Program Notes: February 25th, 2014, 8pm at Dallas City Performance Hall

 In News, Program Notes

For tickets, click here. Or, call the box office at (214) 449-1294

Distant Runes and Incantations

Chamber version (1987)
Joseph Schwantner
Born 22 March, 1943 in Chicago, Illinois
Currently residing in Spofford, New Hampshire
Approximate duration 15 minutes

Joseph Schwantner was already a prominent member of America’s new music community when he won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1979 for his orchestral Aftertones of Infinity. A graduate of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and Northwestern University, he won his first composition award in 1959, when he was still in high school.

Schwantner balanced an academic career with an ever busier schedule of commissions. Before his retirement from teaching ten years ago, he taught at Chicago Conservatory College, Pacific Lutheran University, Ball State University, and the Eastman School of Music. After nearly three decades at Eastman, he joined the Yale University faculty in 2001, then moved to New Hampshire to devote himself full time to composition.

Schwantner’s name became well known to American orchestral audiences during the early 1980s, when he served as the Saint Louis Symphony’s composer in residence for three years. Schwantner remains one of the elder statesmen of American composition.

Distant Runes and Incantations was a commission from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Robert Black was the soloist at the 1984 premiere; Gerard Schwarz conducted. In 1987 Schwantner completed this chamber version, commissioned jointly by Boston Musica Viva, the Da Capo Chamber Players, and the 20th Century Consort.

Distant Runes and Incantations takes its title from a line in an eponymous poem by the composer. It appears in its entirety in the score, and follows below.

Distant Runes and Incantations


give heed . . .

Lord of the dark winds,

give heed . . .

Solitary sentinel of the black moors,

forever vigilant . . .

Cloaked guardian of the ancient citadel,

forever endure . . .

You who for so long remained watchful, ever steadfast,

how endless the time dutiful servant.

before you . . .

Oh resolute warrior,

behold your barren realm . . .

Oh shrouded knight of the leaden fortress,

a disquieting luminescence bathes the barehilled expanse,

The unbroken circle of the moon’s dark halo

chills the spectral landscape,

Odious shadows dance on withered stone,

a grave harmony softly lingers.

In the twilight of your life . . .

Phantom dreams and intoxicating spells

caress the impenetrable sadness,

Vexations and longings recall

the victorious battles,

Through interior worlds–a deep silence remains,

broken only by distant runes and incantations,

In pristine cathedrals, veiled canticles drone

in the sanctuary of your mind.

– Joseph Schwantner

He has written, “While the piece is not specifically programmatic, the poem evoked a wellspring of vivid extra-musical images . . . that helped to shape the flow of my musical ideas.”

In general, Schwantner’s music is atmospheric and evocative, with a strong emphasis on colorful percussion. In this case, the amplified piano becomes an integral participant both in the percussion and in the full ensemble, providing the glue, the constant element coursing through Distant Runes. The soloist has principal responsibility for introducing the major musical ideas, but the orchestral writing is complex and close partnership is essential. Like the mysterious lines of Schwantner’s verse, the music flickers and fades, shifting moods and textures with the skill of a master cinematographer.

The chamber version of Distant Runes is scored for flute, clarinet, solo piano, two violins, viola, cello and percussion.


Le Carnaval des animaux: Grand Fantaisie Zoologique

[The Carnival of the Animals: Grand Zoological Fantasy]
Camille Saint-Saëns
Born 9 October, 1835 in Paris, France
Died 16 December, 1921 in Algiers, Algeria
Approximate duration 21 minutes


By the mid-1880s, Camille Saint-Saëns was internationally famous as a composer, pianist, and organist. He was also decidedly middle-aged, and part of the established old guard in French music.

A quarter of a century earlier, his career had not yet solidified. One of his first jobs was on the faculty of the École Niedermeyer in Paris. He was twenty-six when he started teaching piano classes there in spring 1861 – only a few years older than many of his students. They loved their young professor for his wit, energy, and daring spirit. Saint-Saëns frequently departed from the official syllabus, incorporating Germanic composers such as Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner into his lectures. Above all, he encouraged his students to compose and to experiment with different styles.

His students later recalled that Saint-Saëns liked to lighten things up, injecting humor and occasional mockery of the rules into his classroom improvisations. Delighted with what they heard, the students encouraged him to write down these short pieces. Twenty-five years later, some of them probably metamorphosed into Carnival of the Animals.

Early in 1886, Saint-Saëns was on tour in Germany to promote his Piano Concerto No.4. Political tension between the two countries remained high even fifteen years after the Franco-Prussian war. During the concert tour, controversy erupted when anti-German statements were erroneously attributed to Saint-Saëns. The press bristled, and rising public outrage resulted in cancellation of Saint-Saëns’s performances in Berlin and several other German cities.

He resumed concertizing in Austria and Bohemia, where reception to his music was more favorable. Nevertheless, the brouhaha in Germany had been upsetting, and Saint-Saëns decided to take a rest in a quiet Austrian village. There, in a matter of days, he composed the fourteen movements of Carnival.

He had in mind an annual carnival concert during Mardi Gras, presented by Charles-Joseph Lebouc, a cellist friend in Paris. The first performance of Le Carnaval des animaux: Grande Fantaisie Zoologique took place at Lebouc’s event on 9 March 1886. It was so successful that a repeat performance was presented a few days later at the chamber music series La Trompette. Then Franz Liszt, in Paris for a visit, wanted to hear it, so a further performance occurred at the salon of the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot-Garcia on 2 April.

At that point Saint-Saëns balked. He had intended the piece as a jest; now he was apprehensive that the general public would assume his other music was like Carnival. He withdrew all of it except Le Cygne [The Swan], which he allowed the Russian dancer Mikhail Fokine to choreograph. The balance of the work was suppressed. In a will drafted in 1911, however, Saint-Saëns – by then 76 years old – authorized its posthumous publication. Durand published it three months after the composer’s death in 1921. Le Cygne was played at Saint-Saëns’s funeral in Algiers.

For all his reluctance about Carnival, it remains one of the cleverest parodies in all music. The complete work consists of 14 segments that feature different instruments — a sort of French 19th-century Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The movements are musical illustrations of various “animals,” some of which are clearly metaphors for human beings.

Several of the pieces quote Saint-Saëns’s contemporaries: No.4, ‘Tortoises,’ presents Offenbach’s can-can galop at Adagio tempo; No.5, ‘Elephant,’ quotes a French folk song, Berlioz’s ‘Dance of the Sylphs’ from The Damnation of Faust, Meyerbeer’s Les Patineurs, and the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

No.12, ‘Fossils’ is an example of Saint-Saëns poking fun at his own music. The most recognizable tune he incorporates into this silly hodgepodge (marked ridicolo, or “ridiculously”) is “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” which is known in French as “Ah vous dirai-je maman.” Opera fans may catch a fleeting reference to Rosina’s aria “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Two other popular French folk tunes are quoted, and the composer uses a snatch of a theme from his own orchestral tone poem, Danse macabre. ‘Fossils’ uses xylophone to emulate the rattling of bones.

Though Saint-Saëns does not quote Rameau’s music, he pays tribute to the French Baroque master in No.1 ‘Cocks and Hens,’ and takes a bow to the budding impressionist movement in No.7, ‘Aquarium.’

The satire is not restricted to animals or composers. Saint-Saëns mocks all students of the keyboard in No.11, ‘Pianists,’ and pokes fun at ‘Characters with Long Ears’ in No.8 – surely a coded caricature.

It is all done with an incomparably light touch and economy of means. Saint-Saëns’s satirical humor and incisive vignettes have made Carnival of the Animals a classic.

The chamber version calls for flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet, xylophone, glockenspiel, two solo pianos, and a quintet of strings [two violins, viola, cello, and double bass].

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2014

For tickets, click here. Or, call the box office at (214) 449-1294.

Start typing and press Enter to search