Piano Concerto in A minor
(b. 1843, Bergen, Norway; d. 1907, Bergen)
When the adolescent Edvard Grieg showed exceptional musical promise, he was sent off at age 15 to Leipzig, Germany because Norway — not yet an independent country — had no conservatory to train him. Although he chafed at Leipzig's rigid pedagogy and German music in general, Grieg did eventually find a sympathetic teacher in Ernst Wenzel, who had been a friend of Robert Schumann. Wenzel passed on his love of Schumann’s music to the young Norwegian, and when in 1858 Grieg heard a performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto played by Schumann’s wife, Clara, he was enthralled by the work. Ten years later, while composing his own Piano Concerto in the same key of A minor, he would draw on Schumann’s concerto for inspiration.
Although Grieg’s Piano Concerto followed the traditional form of the Romantic German concerto, it was the subtle use of Norwegian folk influences plus his own genius that kept the work from being a clone of Schumann’s. The Concerto was the product of youth and happiness: created during the idyllic summer of 1868 that was spent by the 25-year-old composer, his young bride, Nina, and their infant daughter in rural Denmark. It was a notable success at its first performance in Copenhagen in April 1869.
This is a work that glories in its multitude of appealing themes — very personally Grieg’s own — and its highly successful blending of tender lyricism with virtuoso display. Its first movement dispenses with the customary orchestral exposition: just a dramatic timpani roll galvanizes the soloist into action. The piano’s vertiginous three-octave plunge begins with a three-note melodic pattern — a descending half-step, following by a descending third — that is common in Norwegian folk music and became known as the “Grieg motive.” Woodwinds then introduce the folkish principal theme, animated by crisp dotted rhythms. It also has a smoothly lyrical second idea, which the piano makes more rhapsodic with swirls of arpeggios. In a slightly slower tempo, cellos sing a warm, yet melancholic second theme. After a brief development, the opening music is reprised, coming to a sudden halt for a big cadenza for the soloist composed by Grieg.
The slow movement travels far from the home key of A minor into the very distant D-flat Major. Muted strings open with a weary theme saturated in sorrow; notice the eloquent contributions here from the solo horn and cello. In a new phase, the piano passionately declares the pain implied in this melody before the movement dies out in elegiac beauty.
A short bridge passage intervenes to return the key to A minor before the piano launches the finale’s stomping main theme in the style of the Norwegian halling dance. Providing an interlude of repose, the solo flute sings a hauntingly lovely melody in a slower tempo. Reprising his opening dance music, Grieg builds excitement to a brief solo cadenza of double-handed octaves. Then the soloist transforms the 2/4 halling into a sparkling 3/4 waltz. But Grieg has an even better idea for his finish. He brings back the haunting second theme, now in a splendid apotheosis in A Major. As annotator Michael Steinberg has written, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff would later imitate this crowd-pleasing device, but Grieg did it first.
Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate
(b. 1968, Norman, Oklahoma)
Last year, The Washington Post named Jerod Tate as one of “22 for 22: composers and performers to watch this year.” In their words,
“Tate is rare as an American Indian composer of classical music. Rarer still is his ability to effectively infuse classical music with Native American nationalism.”
Born in Norman, Oklahoma, Tate is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation — a tribe originally from the southeastern region of the United States, but in the early 19th century forced by the U.S. government to relocate to the Oklahoma Territory on the infamous “Trail of Tears.” His middle name, “Impichchaachaaha,” is his inherited Chickasaw name, meaning “his high corncrib” and referring to the traditional corncribs on stilts that the Chickasaw use for storing their corn and vegetables away from predatory animals. An active pianist as well as a composer, Tate earned his bachelor’s degree in piano performance at Chicago’s Northwestern University, followed by a master’s degree in composition and piano at the renowned Cleveland Institute of Music; he has been honored with a Distinguished Alumni Award by the latter school.
Today Tate is guest composer, conductor, and pianist for the San Francisco Symphony’s Currents Program and in 2021 served as a Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. State Department. He has also won an Emmy Award for his work on the Oklahoma Educational Television documentary “The Science of Composing.” Some of the many orchestras that have commissioned and performed his works include the National Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Detroit Symphony, and The Minnesota Orchestra.
We will hear Chokfi’: Sarcasm, a work for string orchestra joined by an expansive percussion section, which was commissioned by the Oklahoma Youth Orchestras in 2018. Tate describes it as a “character sketch” of the “complicated and diabolical personality” of the trickster rabbit who is a beloved figure in traditional Chicksaw folklore. As Tate says about him, he is “here to challenge us in many, and possibly unwanted and annoying, ways. … Inspired by a commission for youth orchestra, I decided to create a character sketch that would be both fun and challenging for the kids. Different string and percussion techniques and colors represent [the changing qualities] of this rabbit personality. In honor of my Muscogee Creek friends, I have incorporated a popular tribal church hymn as the melodic and musical base.”
The furious beats of tom-toms launch this vivid piece and galvanize the strings into imitating the drum rhythms. Yet this music also has time for soft, lyrical passages of haunting beauty based on the hymn tune. In the exhilarating finale, the tom-toms again take over, driving the music to a high-energy conclusion.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Mussorgsky/arr Maurice Ravel
(b. 1839, Karevo, Ukraine; d. 1881, St. Petersburg, Russia)
When one of his closest friends, the artist and architect Victor Hartman, died of an aneurism at age 39 in 1873, a devastated Modest Mussorgsky helped organize an exhibition of Hartman’s paintings in St. Petersburg early the next year. He then decided to “draw in music” (his words) ten of them in a work for solo piano that he composed rapidly during June 1874. Apparently, he had no plans to orchestrate his Pictures at an Exhibition, and the work was not even published until after his death. It remained little known outside of Russia.
All this changed in 1922 when Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Maurice Ravel, one of the greatest orchestrators of the 20th century, to score Pictures for his Paris ensemble. Working with love and respect for Mussorgsky's music, the Frenchman created a masterpiece in a new genre, in which uncommon instruments like the tuba, alto saxophone, and celesta enrich a glowing orchestral canvas. Several other composers have subsequently produced orchestrations of Pictures, but Ravel’s remains the touchstone.
The following movement descriptions draw on the words of Russian art critic Vladimir Stassov, friend to both Hartman and Mussorgsky:
Promenade: Mussorgsky depicts “himself … as he strolled through the exhibition, joyfully or sadly recalling the talented deceased artist … he does not hurry, but observes attentively.” This music returns throughout the piece as a linking device, changing to reflect the composer's different responses to the pictures. By 1874, Mussorgsky had grown fat, and we hear this in the music’s stately, lumbering gait.
Gnomus: “A fantastic lame figure on crooked little legs … This gnome is a child’s toy, fashioned, after Hartman’s design, in wood for the Christmas tree … in the style of the nutcracker, the nuts being inserted in the gnome’s mouth. … The gnome accompanies his droll movements with savage shrieks.”
Il vecchio castello (“The Old Castle”): This is a sketch of a medieval Italian castle; a troubadour is singing in the foreground. Above the strumming of the guitar, the alto saxophone with a bassoon partner sings the troubadour’s song in dark sepia tones.
Tuileries: Stassov wrote that this high-spirited episode is based on a picture of children playing with their nurse in Paris’ Tuileries Gardens.
Bydlo (“Polish Cart”): This melancholy piece, featuring solo tuba, portrays a heavy Polish ox-drawn wagon. Low strings and bassoons depict the groaning of its wheels. Mussorgsky intended this to begin loudly, but Ravel gradually builds the volume, then lets it fade as the wagon rumbles toward us, then moves away.
Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks: “In 1870, Hartman designed the costumes … for the ballet Trilbi at the Maryinsky Theatre. … In the cast were a number of boy and girl pupils . . . arrayed as canaries. Others were dressed up as eggs.” Hartman’s sketches in which the children’s arms and legs protrude from the egg shells inspired this chirping piece of high woodwinds and celesta.
Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle: “Victor Hartman gave Mussorgsky two of his sketches from real life, those of the rich and the poor Jew” from Sandimir, Poland. Mussorgsky named the two and richly characterized the haughty rich man (in low unison strings and winds) Goldenberg dismissing the whining pleas (muted trumpet solo) of the poor Schmuÿle.
Limoges—The Market: “Old women quarreling at the market in Limoges.”
Catacombae and “Con mortuis in lingua mortua” (Catacombs and “With the Dead in a Dead Language”): In the solemn tones of low brass this bursts immediately from “Limoges.” Hartman’s picture shows the artist, a friend, and a guide examining the Paris catacombs by lamplight. A pile of skulls is heaped in one corner; Mussorgsky imagines that they begin to glow from within.
The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba-Yaga): Powerful and grotesque, “this piece is based on Hartman’s design for a clock in the form of Baba-Yaga’s hut on hen's legs, to which Mussorgsky added the ride of the witch in her mortar.” Baba-Yaga is a Russian fairytale witch who lures children into the woods, eats them, then crushes their bones in a giant mortar in which she rides through the woods. Baba-Yaga soars upward into …
The Great Gate of Kiev: The grand finale, based on the “Promenade” music, depicts Hartman’s competition design for a ceremonial arch in Kiev to commemorate Tsar Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt. It is “in the massive old Russian style in the form of a Slavonic helmet.” Since Kiev is the historic seat of Russian orthodoxy, Mussorgsky incorporates a Russian orthodox hymn-tune sung by the woodwinds. Ringing with church bells and brass fanfares, the work climaxes in a blaze of Slavic glory.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2023
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