Program Notes: September 17, 2013, 8pm at Dallas City Performance Hall

 In News, Program Notes

The Wagner and Verdi bicentennials have received considerable international attention this year. They have overshadowed another important anniversary in 2013: the centennial of England’s Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). The Dallas Chamber Symphony salutes Britten on both its concerts this autumn, beginning this evening with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.

Pärt and Britten never met, but the Estonian-born composer was deeply moved by Britten’s passing. He later wrote:

Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s death – December 4, 1976 – touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognize the magnitude of such a loss. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music. And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally, and now it would not come to that.

His musical response to the loss was the spellbinding Cantus, which emulates aspects of Britten’s style in Pärt’s unique, mystical language.  

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


Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

Arvo Pärt

Born 11 September 1935 in Paide, Estonia

Approximate duration 6 minutes

Estonian-born Arvo Pärt left the Soviet Union for the west in 1980.  Since then his music has become far better known, and a different picture has emerged of this fascinating composer who bridges so much of Eastern and Western cultures. Early in his career, Pärt went through a serialist phase with a strong emphasis on contrapuntal technique. He also quoted extensively from earlier composers. By 1982, the year he settled in Berlin he had abandoned serialism but retained the allusions to earlier composers and styles. His music evolved into a deceptively simple idiom often compared to minimalism.

Most critics think of Pärt primarily as a colorist who reveals his palette slowly, allowing time for each timbral change to be thoroughly perceived.  Composer Eric Salzman has written:

The effect of Pärt’s music is striking and hypnotic, but its meditative qualities are mystical and emotional rather than physical or nostalgic (as in much American music).  The music sometimes actually seems to weep; its qualities of lyrical modality and sadness are strengthened by its coloristic and process form, and relate it very strongly to Eastern European tradition.

Pärt draws the inspiration for his mesmerizing music from a number of sources:  mysticism, Renaissance harmony, chant-like melodies, and the works of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, which made a strong imprint upon him during his youth.

Since the 1970s, Pärt has composed music that shares certain traits with minimalism:  he emphasizes tonality and employs repetitive patterns.  Sometimes his long, vocal lines evoke the soothing monotony of medieval organum. Beginning in 1976, he described his music as tintinnabulation, from the Latin word for bells. He has written:

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.

Bell sounds feature prominently in Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977), combining with the timbre of a string ensemble. The New York Times critic Allan Kozinn has described Cantus as “an orchestral threnody in which a touch of Britten’s own lush string scoring style invokes the memory of the British composer.” 

A single chime opens Cantus, providing subtle color and a spiritual element. Pärt explores the sonorous beauty of the strings in different patterns of descending minor scales.  The entrances grow progressively slower in their downward trajectory, creating layers of sound that coalesce on a low A minor chord.  Pärt’s thought-provoking music leaves us with a sense of bereavement that is also curiously peaceful.

Cantus is scored for string orchestra and chime.


Concerto in D minor for Violin and Strings, Op. Posth.

Felix Mendelssohn

Born 3 February, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany

Died 4 November, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany

Approximate duration 22 minutes

The Viennese-born music critic and writer Hans Keller used to refer to the Mendelssohn E minor Violin concerto – the famous one – as “the only violin concerto.” That deservedly beloved masterpiece has earned its cornerstone position in the repertoire, holding its own with the other great German violin concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruch. Mendelssohn did not spring forth fully formed with that great work, however. An accomplished violinist as well as a pianist and organist, Mendelssohn tried his hand at a violin concerto during his teenage years. The D minor work we hear this evening dates from 1822, when young Felix was all of fourteen. Its polish and solidity are a reminder that Mendelssohn’s genius flowered in his youth as richly as Mozart’s.

The comparison to Mozart is apt, not only because Mendelssohn adored Mozart’s music, but also because Mozart was clearly his model in this concerto. Felix was particularly fond of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K.466, a piece that had already become a specialty of his in performance. The tonality of this violin work is surely a salute to the Mozart. Equally important is that Mozart’s five violin concertos clearly furnished Mendelssohn with his musical models. Certain phrases, particularly in the first movement, are adapted directly from those 1770s compositions – which were also the work of an immensely gifted teenager.

The piece was Mendelssohn’s first essay in the realm of the concerto. He composed it after returning from a journey to Switzerland and Weimar, where he had met Germany’s most famous author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The trip evidently filled his mind with music, for in short order Felix also wrote a piano concerto, three fugues for piano, the Piano Quartet in C minor, Op.1 and several choral works.

What listeners may find surprising about this concerto is its large scale. The first movement includes a substantial orchestral exposition (a convention that Mendelssohn would abandon in the later Violin Concerto, Op.64). While the string accompaniment remains relatively modest, there is much of the spirit of Mendelssohn’s youthful string symphonies, and the writing is skilled.

The Andante has more individuality than the outer movements, with lovely lyrical moments and a secure command of some unusual modulations. Mendelssohn’s finale is more Haydnesque, with a lighthearted spirit despite its minor mode. This concluding Allegro is also indebted to Haydn in its monothematic structure. Mendelssohn’s tenacious loyalty to the main theme transcends some capricious episodes.

The score calls for solo violin and strings.


Serenade for Strings, Op. 48

Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky

Born 7 May, 1840 in Votkinsk, Viatka District, Russia

Died 6 November, 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia

Approximate duration 28 minutes

In October 1880 Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness, Nadejhda von Meck:

My muse has been so kind that in a short time I have got through two long works:  a big festival overture for the Exhibition, and a serenade for string orchestra in four movements.  I am busy orchestrating them both.

The first piece was the bombastic 1812 Overture; the second was the delightful serenade we hear this evening. It is difficult to imagine two works further apart in spirit and taste.

The composer’s letters make it clear that he focused his creative energy on the Serenade.  He had composed the overture tongue-in-cheek, and knew that his reputation would gain far more from the Serenade.  To his publisher Peter Ivanovich Jürgenson he wrote:  “I am violently in love with this work and can’t wait for it to be played.”  Tchaikovsky’s original conception was midway between symphony and string quartet or quintet.  His restriction of the performing forces to strings alone is the only remaining vestige of small ensemble texture, for he specified in the score that he wanted the largest number of strings possible.

Critics have pointed out that the Serenade is uneven in quality, and that the Waltz has been played separately so often that it has become hackneyed.  Still, live performance restores the music’s freshness.  We are reminded why this piece entered the repertoire immediately upon its premiere, and has retained considerable popularity.  Even Anton Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky’s former teacher and severest critic, came to like the Serenade.

Straightforward and sunny in temperament, the Serenade overflows with memorable melodies in all four movements, and strong thematic connections between the first and the last movements.  Descending and ascending scale patterns figure prominently in its themes, and more than one Russian folk melody is incorporated into its fabric.  Frequent double-stopping in the strings contributes to the lushness of the Serenade’s sound; Tchaikovsky counters this in places with doubled parts, thereby reducing the number of polyphonic lines.  His string-writing throughout is masterly, and contributes to the Serenade’s place as one of his finest compositions between 1878 and 1885.  No other nineteenth-century work for strings alone has become so firmly entrenched in the permanent repertoire. 

All four sections of the Serenade have their special moments.  The first movement, which bears the subtitle Pezzo in forma di sonatina [piece in the form of a sonatina] is peculiarly reminiscent of a Handelian overture.  It is framed by a rich, grand slow introduction that returns at the end after a lively middle section whose length — the movement takes ten minutes — belies the “sonatina” of the subtitle.  Tchaikovsky’s second-movement Valse is a delightful reminder of his brilliant gift for ballet music; at the same time, darker moments in the middle section call to mind the weightier, metaphysical waltzes of Chopin and Brahms. 

Tchaikovsky’s Elegy recaptures some of the grandeur of the slow introduction; his finale is pure Russian folk music, with the subtitle Tema russo attached to the first part and the spirit of balalaika dancing driving the pace of the Allegro con spirito. 

The Serenade is scored for strings.

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2013

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

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