Wagner and Stravinsky
Saturday, June 1, 2013 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
CHEN YI (born 1963)
MOUNT A LONG WIND
Premiered: Beijing, China 2010
The composer has kindly provided this note for tonight’s performance, which is the United States Premiere of Mount a Long Wind.
"I will mount a long wind some day and break the heavy waves And set my cloudy sail straight and bridge the deep, deep sea."
Inspired by the meaningful line from the famous ancient Chinese poet Li Po, I composed my orchestral work Mount a Long Wind to honor my Alma Mater, the Central Conservatory of Music, and to pay respect to all of my professors, colleagues and students for their vision and hard work. We wish to overcome all hardship and continue to make good progress towards a bright future. The first four pitches emerging from a quiet deep, deep sea form the motive of the piece (F, C, G, A), which is followed by its variations again and again, until the music is built up to the climax, where the shape of the motive is inverted (F, B-flat, E-flat, D-flat and B, E, A, G). The pitch material of the inverted form came from a popular Chinese instrumental folk tune “Old Eight Beats”. The Coda combines both forms and ends determinately. I hope my musicians and audience can enjoy the beauty of the atmosphere in the beginning of the piece, and the ever-growing energy when the music is unfolded, to feel the encouraging spirit.
THE HARD ROAD by Li Po
Pure wine costs, for the golden cup, ten thousand coppers a flagon,
And a jade plate of dainty food calls for a million coins.
I fling aside my food-sticks and cup, I cannot eat nor drink....
I pull out my dagger. I peer four ways in vain.
I would cross the Yellow River, but ice chokes the ferry;
I would climb the Taihang Mountains, but the sky is blind with snow....
I would sit and poise a fishing-pole, lazy by a brook --
But I suddenly dream of riding a boat, sailing for the sun....
Journeying is hard,
Journeying is hard.
There are many turnings --
Which am I to follow?....
I will mount a long wind some day and break the heavy waves
And set my cloudy sail straight and bridge the deep, deep sea.
The poem was written in 744, when the poet had to leave Chang’an, the Chinese capital, against his will. It has become the literary touchstone of the Chinese exile throughout the ages, voluntary or otherwise. The apparently innocuous line about “fishing by the brook” evokes the fate of the 90-year-old Lu Shang, who was recalled from exile by King Wen of Zhou. If the poet makes the right gestures, placates the right people, he may get to return – very eventually.
EDOUARD LALO (1823-1892)
SYMPHONIE ESPAGNOLE in D minor, Op.21
I : Allegro non troppo
Composed : 1874
Premiered : Paris, 1875
Although famously dismissed by Kaikhosru Sorabji as “phenomenally un-Hispanic,” the Symphonie Espagnole was the standard-bearer for the wave of Spanish-themed music that hit France in the 1870s and never abated until the last years of Ravel. Only a month after the Symphonie’s premiere, Bizet’s Carmen took the stage and made the rest of the Spanish invasion more or less inevitable.
A concerto in all but name, the Symphonie Espagnole has little of the Wagnerian influence which turned the critics against Lalo in his early years, but the “Spanish themes” which form its musical material are almost certainly entirely of Lalo’s invention, as Sorabji fiercely pointed out before admitting that the work has “a certain terrifying charm from a violinist’s point of view”. The work was written for Pablo de Sarasate, the composer of Zigeunerweisen and one of the leading virtuosi of his or any other age – a guarantee that the work is technically at the Everest level. It is also among the most popular works for violin and orchestra, with over 2,000 known recordings to date.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791)
FLUTE CONCERTO in D, K.314
Composed : Oboe version 1777, reworked for flute 1778
Premiered : Mannheim, Germany, 1782
I: Allegro aperto
Early in 1777, Mozart was delighted to receive a sizeable commission from the Dutch flutist Ferdinand Dejean, asking for four flute concerti and four flute quartets. To begin with, the relationship with Dejean went well, with the first concerto, in C, having a triumphant reception late in 1777. However, Mozart had been through a great deal of misery writing it: the late 18th-century flute was very different from its modern descendant, and far harder to play – which, in turn, made it far harder to write for. Dejean had very much made his presence felt in Mozart’s life, demanding changes on technical grounds throughout the creation and rehearsal of first concerto.
By the beginning of 1778, Mozart had had enough. In an attempt to complete the commission quickly, he took his 1777 oboe concerto off the shelf, and reworked it for the flute, turning it into a surprisingly different work in the process. Unfortunately, Ferdinand Dejean discovered the existence of the oboe original, and refused to pay for the D major concerto. There would be no more, and Mozart’s professional reputation was seriously damaged; the last of what would have been Dejean’s flute quartets also never came into being. Dejean put it about that Mozart had simply transposed the oboe concerto up from C to D, but this was far from true. The true relationship between the concerti would only be discovered in1920, when the manuscript was found after being lost for over a hundred years.
Whatever its origins, the D major flute concerto remains one of the most delightful works of its kind from the Classical era, with a solo part tailored exactly to Dejean’s instrument, whatever his protests to the contrary. Such an easy-going, open-hearted (“aperto”actually means “open”) work seems an unlikely remnant from a musical war, but that’s musicology.
PABLO de SARASATE (1844-1908)
ZIGEUNERWEISEN (Gypsy Airs), Op.20
Composed : 1878
Premiered : Leipzig, Germany, 1879
Much delightfully bogus scholarship has gone into proving that this was the work that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went to hear in the tale of The Red Headed League. Holmes, himself no mean violinist, declares himself an admirer of Sarasate – and if Sarasate could play this work as written (which he could!), it is not hard to see why.
It almost goes without saying that there is very little real Gypsy music in the work, but it is fair to say that the original audience would neither have known nor cared; the Gypsy Fiddler was a stock character in the repertoire of a traveling violin mountebank like Sarasate – much like, indeed, one of Sherlock Holmes’ disguises. The piece is in a single movement, but this is divided into clearly-defined sections. A dignified Moderato gives way to a gloomy lento whose melodic line is interspersed with increasingly frightening virtuoso bursts of (bogus) “improvised” fantasy. This in turn leads to an even slower section based on a real Gypsy melody with an oddly Scottish “snap” rhythm, before the final Allegro Molto breaks out in a virtuosic nightmare of multiple stops, simultaneous pizzicato and just about everything else that keeps a violinist awake at night.
IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Premiered: Paris, France, 1910
But for the chance operations of history, we could have been listening to Anatoly Lyadov’s Firebird – or Nikolai Tcherepnin’s take on the story. The artist and ballet designer Alexander Benois first approached the impresario Sergei Diaghilev with the idea for the ballet that became The Firebird in 1908, and these two composers – eminent then, PhD fodder now – were Diaghilev’s first two choices. Both actually started writing music. The music of Lyadov’s Enchanted Kingdom is his Firebird score, prised from Diaghilev’s claws after a nightmarish legal wrangle; Tcherepnin wrote nearly an hour of music before deciding that Diaghilev was too difficult to work with. Once Stravinsky’s music started to emerge, however, Diaghilev soon realized he had a genius on his hands, famously remarking to one of his ballerinas that Stravinsky was “a man on the brink of fame”.
When he took the commission from Diaghilev, Stravinsky was still recovering from the death of his much-loved teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky’s music for the ballet is as much a meditation on Rimsky’s music as it is inspiration for dance – a “meditation” in the sense that it uses actual quotations from Rimsky as the starting point for Stravinsky’s far more modernistic music. Some of Stravinsky’s friends spotted this (they are unmissable to those who know their Rimsky) and accused him of plagiarism, or at least borrowing; he blandly replied that only mediocre composers borrow from others, but great composers steal outright. Some of the most famous passages in the entire ballet – notably the opening and the Infernal Dance – are escapees from the dustier corners of Rimsky’s many operas.
Stravinsky’s motives for doing this are complex, and do not include taking shortcuts or plagiarism in the normal sense. He once said that the actual musical material of a composition is its least interesting aspect. He preferred to work on material that was so trivial that no-one paid attention to it as such; listeners would be too busy being enthralled by Stravinsky’s transformative powers. As another of this evening’s composers, Richard Wagner, said, music is the art of transition – how one musical idea moves to or becomes another.
The story of The Firebird was intended to be understood as a distinctly Russian epic – the tale of Prince Ivan and his adventures in the kingdom of Kashchei the Immortal. Note the royalty, by the way; Rimsky and Stravinsky were very much part of the conservative Russian revolutionary tendency of their time, now largely forgotten under the long shadow of the Bolsheviks. One of the earliest reviews rhapsodized over Stravinsky’s music by declaring him the true successor to the Mighty Handful, the group of intensely conservative composers who dominated Russian musical life in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Firebird itself is not, as often stated, a symbol of “freedom” but of Russian resurgence, held back by the evil Kashchei and his weirdly western-tending henchcreatures. The thirteen princesses who provide one of their number as Ivan’s love interest (and pas de deux partner) have been interpreted as the Balkan states (the number is correct), with Serbia the lucky girl. This would presumably leave Prussia as the original of Kashchei, whose soul is made immortal by being encased in a magic egg. We need only think of the Fabergé eggs to remember the arcane symbolism of the egg in late Tsarist Russia. Ivan makes all the Princesses fall asleep while the Firebird leads him to the magic egg. Ivan smashes the egg, destroying Kashchei and waking the princesses to eternal (and presumably Tsarist) bliss. The famous final dance is a Cossack triumphal dance with surprisingly little metrical alteration to Stravinskyize it; anyone who has been at the receiving end of the Cossacks will confirm that their embrace is not necessarily a good thing, however good the soundtrack.
As in the case of Mozart’s Magic Flute, it is probably not a good idea to dwell too much on what the story of The Firebird “means”. As Wagner shows only too well, some of the greatest of all music has “meanings” that may be better off forgotten. What the Firebird certainly is, however, is Stravinsky’s first indisputable masterpiece, and a major step towards the daunting pinnacle of the Rite of Spring. Many listeners feel that Stravinsky’s style changed violently between these two glorious monsters; it did not. All the elements of the Rite – the obsessive repetitions, the non-thematic “themes”, the scrambled rhythms, even some of the actual themes - are present in The Firebird, but cloaked in the lush brocade of Rimsky-Korsskov’ harmony and orchestration. To create the Rite, Stravinsky simply took off Diaghilev’s fur coat and replaced it with Nijinsky’s animal skin. Listen closely – it’s all there.
RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883)
GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG (The Twilight of the Gods)
SIEGFRIED’S FUNERAL MUSIC
Premiered: Bayreuth, Germany, 1876
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche caught the worst cold of his life while watching the premiere of Götterdämmerung, and in the process sneezed out (as he put it) his hero-worship of Richard Wagner. By the time he had returned to his home in Basel, Nietzsche was well on the way to becoming Wagner’s most determined, most implacable enemy, having finally realized, very late, that Wagner’s much-touted return to the values of Ancient Greece was really a much more straightforward march into the arms of modern Prussia.
Wagner wrote the “poem” for the Ring of the Nibelung backwards, beginning with The Death of Siegfried (the proto-Götterdämmerung), then finding himself forced to write a string of prequels to explain the moral, emotional and aesthetic chaos which finally detonates in the end of the world (more or less) at the end of Götterdämmerung. Actually, there was a fair amount of chaos within Wagner himself. After writing the other three Music Dramas to explain Götterdämmerung, he changed the end of the cycle at least three times. In the final version, the heroine (more or less) Brünnhilde throws herself and her horse onto the hero (ditto) Siegfried’s funeral pyre, which causes the Rhine to overflow, the sky to fall in, Valhalla to collapse and all of humanity to drown. Second and third thoughts include Brünnhilde becoming a Buddhist semi-deity instead of dying, and an incomplete flooding of the Rhine which leaves some lucky humans alive. No wonder Nietzsche got the sniffles; he would spend most of the next twenty years jeering at Wagner in some of the most destructive prose ever written.
The only constant in all the different versions of Götterdämmerung, however, is the death of Siegfried. This fearless (and therefore doomed) super-hero dies in circumstances of genuine tragedy – betrayed by his lover and destroyed by his own contradictions, all under the crushing weight of a fate that he cannot control. Though Nietzsche, not without reason, calls him “the most stupid character ever to strut the stage,” it is impossible not to be moved and impressed by his passing, which itself sets up the next implacable, world-levelling turn of fate.
Siegfried’s Funeral March has the dubious distinction of being Adolf Hitler’s favourite piece of music. Hitler drove his fellow bunker-dwellers insane with it in the last days of the Third Reich, riding the music’s inescapable waves of Herrschaft oder Niedergang (mastery or downfall) to oblivion, accompanied by all around him. And, indeed, the music has a feeling of ineluctable doom unlike anything else in music. It also has an inescapable emotional grip on the listener; as Nietzsche observed, with music like this we could believe almost anything (and that was the problem!). The motifs representing Siegfried, Death and the Twilight of the Gods curl around each other over a stabbing rhythmic figure that hammers home what seem like the last nails in the world’s coffin, until the trumpet enters with a blazing statement of the Sword motif and the whole terrifying edifice slowly coils down into a disturbing, still-one-shoe-left-to-drop gloom.
Siegfried may be the product of an incestuous pairing; he may have married the only woman he ever met who was not his aunt; he may talk to birds and think his helmet makes him invisible, but Wagner’s music makes us believe in him. At some level that we barely dare to contemplate, he is something we aspire to, admire and mourn. His death is not only his tragedy, but ours, too.
About the Concert
The turbulent and emotional funeral music for the hero of the Ring cycle caps off our classical finale in Wagner’s bicentennial year. Highlights from the original version of Stravinsky’s celebrated Firebird ballet will bring over 100 musicians to the Rouse Theatre stage. We'll give the U.S premiere of Chen Yi’s work, a colorful exploration of music from her native China, and the dazzling talents of our Young Artist Competition winners will astound you!