Program Notes for 12/13/2020 Concert

I Crisantemi (The Chrysanthemums)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Giacomo Puccini was born into a Tuscan family of church musicians and it was expected that he would succeed his father, Michele Puccini, as ‘maestro di cappella’ at the San Martino cathedral in the small town of Lucca, Italy—a position that had been held by a Puccini for four generations. Sadly, Michele died when Giacomo was only six years old and the chain of succession was broken.

However, according to annotator Elizabeth Dalton, these circumstances did free the young man to pursue other musical avenues. After seeing a performance of Verdi’s Aida at the age of 15, the young musician became inspired to write opera.

In 1883, while attending the Milan Conservatory, Puccini composed a one-act opera for a competition; he did not win, but Le Villi was successful enough to put the young Puccini on a very different career path that led to him becoming one of the most successful and famous opera composers of all time. La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot are among the most frequently performed operas in the standard repertoire. Puccini himself acknowledged that his true talent lay “only in the theatre,” and so his non-operatic works are relatively few.

However, the string quartet was a medium for which he had a certain affinity. As a conservatory student, he composed a set of three short minuets and an unrelated scherzo for string quartet. In 1890 he composed I Cristantemi (The Chrysanthemums) in response to the sudden death of a friend. The man in question was Amadeo di Savoia, Duke of Aosta, a young and ambitious Italian prince who was selected to assume the throne of the King of Spain after that country’s Glorious Revolution of 1868. The task of unifying a violent nation and restoring constitutional order under constant threat of assassination and civil war proved too great, and Amadeo abdicated in 1873, whereupon a Republic was declared. Amadeo returned to Turin, humiliated, and lived quietly until his death at the age of 44. It is not known how the friendship between Puccini and the Duke came about but it was of sufficient significance to inspire this elegiac piece, named after the flower of mourning and heroism in Italian tradition.

Composed in just one night, as alleged by Puccini in a letter written to his brother, I Crisantemi is a single-movement elegy in three-part form based on two plaintive melodies in C sharp minor. The first is restless, building its power from chromatic figures moving in contrary motion. In the middle, a mournful theme for the first violin sounds over pulsations in the viola; the first violin and cello then repeat the melody, in double octaves, with the pedal in the second violin. A brief return of the opening music closes the lament.

Puccini thought enough of this music to reuse some of it in his opera, Manon Lescaut, composed three years later in 1893. The main theme that opens the quartet serves as the orchestral backdrop for much of the action of Act IV, when Manon and her lover des Grieux are wandering to their deaths in the desert wasteland of Louisiana, and the soloistic second theme underscores the Act III prison duet between the ill-fated lovers.

Holberg Suite, op. 40
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

During the early 18th century, the Danish poet-dramatist Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754) put Scandinavia on the map in European theatrical circles. So deftly humorous were his comedies, he was dubbed “the Molière of the North,” after the celebrated French dramatist of the 17th century, writes conductor William Intriligator for the Dubuque, Iowa, Symphony.

The then-famous dramatist, though Danish, lived in Bergen, Norway, for a time. That was also late 19th-century composer Edvard Grieg’s hometown. So, of course, when the bicentenary of Holberg’s birth rolled around in 1884, the city of Bergen wanted to provide its own festive salute, and Grieg (most famous today for his Peer Gynt Suite) got the commission.

That Holberg’s birth party would take place during December and the stormy darkness of a Norwegian winter made no difference to Bergen’s city fathers. They engaged Grieg—by then one of Europe’s most admired composers—to write a cantata for male voices to be performed outdoors around the new Holberg monument in the central market place, as well as another work for the concert hall.

Grieg, who possessed an earthy sense of humor, had no illusions about the success of his cantata for the unveiling ceremony on December 3. “I can see it all before me,” he wrote a friend, “snow, hail, storm and every kind of foul weather, huge male choir with open mouths, the rain streaming into them, myself conducting with waterproof cape, winter coat, galoshes, and umbrella! And a cold afterwards, of course, or goodness knows what kind of illness! Oh well, it’s one way of dying for one’s country!”

The weather on that day turned out to be pretty much as he’d predicted, the Dubuque annotator continues, and Norway’s best-known composer’s cantata was soon forgotten.

But Grieg’s other composition, From Holberg’s Time (now known simply as the Holberg Suite), a Baroque-inspired dance suite originally created for piano and then rescored for string orchestra, had a much happier fate. Though Grieg dismissed it as “a perruque piece” (after the 18th century’s powdered wigs), it became one of his most beloved works.

In five brief movements, all but one in G Major, the Holberg Suite begins—as do all Baroque suites—with a Praeludium or prelude. It is in Baroque toccata style, with a continuous flow of fast, energetic figures and rushing scales: a warm-up for the orchestra.

Next comes a Sarabande, in Baroque times a slow, stately dance in 3/4 time. Grieg follows this character, creating music of gentle, melancholy beauty. Listen for the lovely passages for cello soloists in the second half of the dance.

In third place, we hear a Gavotte, a gracious, moderate-tempo dance. Grieg’s is charmingly pastoral in character and encloses a contrasting dance called a musette. French in origin, the musette was originally danced to bagpipe accompaniment, and we can hear the drone of the pipes in the lower strings.

The fourth-movement Air is not a dance, but an elegiac song, like Bach’s famous “Air for the G String.” The only movement in minor (G minor), it is the sorrowful heart of the Holberg Suite: a beautiful melding of Baroque style and Grieg’s own poignant lyricism.

The Suite closes with a Rigaudon, a French dance with a cheerful, vivacious character. This one features violin and viola soloists imitating the spirited folk style of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, but in a very polished manner. It is as though the Norwegian country folk, all scrubbed up and in their best traditional costumes, had been summoned for a court performance in Copenhagen, Intriligator comments.

Symphony in Brass
Eric Ewazen (1954-  )

Eric Ewazen’s Symphony in Brass was commissioned by the Detroit Chamber Winds in 1991 and recorded by the Summit Brass Ensemble. It uses “symphonic” brass instrumentation: four trumpets, four horns, three trombones, euphonium, tuba, and percussion. Ewazen masterfully utilizes a very standard three-movement form, including a “Haydn-esque” first movement that has a slow introduction followed by a typical Allegro. The second movement is a beautiful Andante that features a reflective, yet powerful, use of the brass voices, according to a program annotator for the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band. A triumphant tutti fanfare starts the third movement and is followed by solo lines exchanged by each instrument. The piece ends in a joyful flourish with the return of the opening fanfare.

The third movement of the Symphony in Brass is used the theme music for National Public Radio’s political coverage.

Ewazen studied composition under Samuel Adler, Milton Babbitt, Gunther Schuller, Joseph Schwantner, Warren Benson, and Eugene Kurtz at the Eastman School of Music and The Julliard School (where he received numerous composition awards, prizes, and fellowships).

A faculty member at The Julliard School since 1980, Ewazen has also served on the faculty of the Hebrew Arts School and the Lincoln Center Institute. He served as vice president of the League of Composers—International Society for Contemporary Music from 1982-1989, and was also composer-in-residence for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York City.

Ewazen’s compositions have been performed by numerous ensembles and orchestras around the world, such as the Cleveland Orchestra, and at festivals such as Woodstock, Tanglewood, Aspen, Caramoor, Tidewater, and the Music Academy of the West, among others. In recent years, he has increasingly written for brass instruments.

—notes compiled by Susan Scheib