Program Notes for 03/29/2020 Concert, Singing Voices

Fanfare from the ballet, La Péri

Paul Dukas (1865-1935)

Parisian composer Paul Dukas wrote the Fanfare from La Péri as a prelude to a 1912 one-act ballet which was his last published work. It was perhaps written as a way to call his audience to order (Parisian audiences were noisy at the time), as it is composed in a radically different style from the ballet itself, whose “oriental” music and choreography is about Alexander the Great searching for immortality, and that monarch’s  encounter with a mythological figure.

The fanfare is scored for the orchestra’s full brass section.

A critic, scholar and teacher, as well as composer, Dukas was intensely self-critical, and he abandoned and destroyed many of his compositions. His best-known work is the orchestral piece, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the fame of which has eclipsed that of his other surviving works. Among these compositions are the La Péri ballet; an opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue; a symphony; and two substantial works for solo piano.

At a time when French musicians were divided into conservative and progressive factions, Dukas adhered to neither but retained the admiration of both. His compositions were influenced by composers including Bethoven, Berlioz, Franck, d’Indy, and Debussy.

In tandem with his composing career, Dukas worked as a music critic, contributing regular reviews to at least five French journals. Later in his life he was appointed professor of composition at the Conservatoire de Paris and the École Normale de Musique; his pupils included Maurice Duruflé, Olivier Messiaen, Jean Langlais, Manuel Ponce, and Joaquín Rodrigo. Dukas became the Paris Conservatoire’s professor of composition after the retirement of organist Charles Widor (famous for the Toccata played for countless weddings).

In the last year of his life, Dukas was elected to membership of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.  Though adhering to neither the progressive nor conservative factions among French musicians of the era, Dukas had the friendship and respect of both. In 1920, Vincent d’Indy published a study of Dukas’s music; Debussy remained a lifelong friend, though feeling that Dukas’s music was not French enough; Saint-Saëns worked with Dukas to complete an unfinished opera by Guiraud, and they were both engaged in the rediscovery and editing of the works of Jean-Philippe Rameau. Gabriel Fauré dedicated his Second Piano Quintet to Dukas in 1921.

Violin Concderto No. 1, Sz. 36

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Sz. 36, was written in 1907-08, but not published until 1956, after the composer’s death, and the death of violinist Stefi Geyer, the woman for whom he wrote the concerto.

Bartók was in love with Geyer, a student of Jeno Hubay at the Budapest Music Academy, where Bartok was a professor of piano. Geyer could not reciprocate Bartok’s feelings, but kept the manuscript. At her express wish, it was released only after her death in 1956. The work was first performed in Basel, Switzerland, by violinist Hans-heinz Schneberger in 1958.

According to Mark Satola, writing for AllMusic, Geyer, an outgoing personality with strong religious convictions, may have rejected the composer’s  affections because she felt alienated by Bartók’s introversion and Nietzschean atheism.

In fact, Satola writes, this concerto is nothing less than Bartók’s portrait of Stefi Geyer. The first movement is, in the composer’s own words, “the idealized Stefi, celestial and inward.” The five-note motto signifying Geyer is announced by the soloist, who is shortly joined by a solo violin from the orchestra playing the theme in modified inversion. One by one, string instruments join the contrapuntal discourse–for a time the music takes on the guise of a string quartet–until the texture includes the full complement of strings.

The winds then enter with a different view of the long and affectionate theme. (Bartók noted in a letter to Geyer that the movement was “written exclusively from the heart.”) Even at this early date, the composer’s preference for the variation principle over a more traditional sonata-form development is in evidence, providing an organic quality that emphasizes the beauty and serenity of the musical material.

The second movement portrays the more cosmopolitan Geyer – in Bartók’s words, “cheerful, witty, amusing.” The opening theme features four heavily stressed notes related by inversion to the “Stefi” motto. Here, Bartók achieves a new high in the resourceful deployment of musical material, as well as in the movement’s colorful orchestration. The scherzando quality suggests the spirit of folk dance characteristic of so much of Bartók’s music.

Bartók had originally intended to write a third movement depicting the “indifferent, cool and silent Stefi Geyer,” writes Satola. However, the composer abandoned the idea, deeming the two-movement structure sufficient. Bartók later orchestrated the last of his 14 Bagatelles for Solo Piano, a brief and sarcastic dance based on the “Stefi” theme, and appended it to the first movement of the concerto; this diptych was published in 1911 as Two Portraits, Op. 5, Satola writes.

Béla Bartók is considered one of the most important composers of the twentieth century; he and Franz Liszt are regarded as Hungary’s greatest composers. Through Bartók’s collection and analytical study of folk music, he was one of the founders of comparative musicology, which later became ethnomusicology.

Te Deum

Antón Bruckner (1824-1896)

Bruckner’s Te Deum is one of the greatest declarations of faith we have—a hymn of thanksgiving from the most deeply religious of composers, writes Phillip Huscher for the Chicago Symphony.

Bruckner was raised on church music—his mother sang in the choir and his father was the church organist in the tiny village of Ansfelden, where Antón grew up. For years the only music he knew was what he heard there, in the nearby monastery of Saint Florian, or in the cathedral in Linz. Bruckner himself began to write organ preludes and sacred choral works—small pieces that suggested none of the grandeur and vision of the important symphonic composer he was to become. But in 1862, when he heard Wagner’s music for the first time and was bowled over by its breadth and magnificence, he knew at once that he must try to do something for which his narrow background was inadequate, Huscher writes.

Eventually, after much soul searching—and despite a nearly paralyzing lack of self-confidence—he began to concentrate on composing the symphonies on which his fame rests today. As a result, the only major sacred works of Bruckner’s maturity are a brief setting of Psalm 150 and this Te Deum.

Bruckner sketched the Te Deum in 1881, at the same time he was gathering his thoughts to begin the symphony that would become his most popular, the Seventh. The symphony occupied him for the next several months. Bruckner completed it in early September, and three weeks later he began a revision of the Te Deum that he worked on until the following March. He finished the work in 1884.

Bruckner struggled throughout his entire career to get his works performed, but he could not wait to hear the Te Deum, and so in 1885 he arranged to have it sung with two pianos providing a faint suggestion of his grand, heaven-storming orchestral accompaniment. (Bruckner himself conducted.) The official premiere, in January 1886, under Hans Richter, was one of the few successes of Bruckner’s life. It even met with the approval of the quarrelsome critic Eduard Hanslick, who had never before written a kind word about Bruckner (This time he griped about the “never ending noise of the applause” instead.).

The Te Deum quickly became one of Bruckner’s most popular works. It was performed that April in Munich, where again it received storms of applause. Wherever it was given, Bruckner earned new supporters. In Berlin in 1891, Hans von Bülow—an ardent Wagnerian (until Wagner stole his wife), but never a Bruckner fan—was so overwhelmed that he recommended that the work be repeated. During the last decade of the composer’s life, the Te Deum was performed some thirty times, and in places as far from Vienna as Cincinnati, Ohio, where Theodore Thomas and his new Chicago Orchestra introduced it to America during the Cincinnati May Festival in 1892, according to Huscher. The publication of the score brought Bruckner fifty gulden, the only money he ever earned as composer.

The Te Deum is a distillation of all Bruckner understood of music, life, and faith. For a composer known—and sometimes criticized—for the breadth and spaciousness of his symphonies, the Te Deum is remarkably compact—five brief sections connected to form a single paragraph. The score, although terse and concentrated, is symphonic in scope and substance.

Although Bruckner calls for characteristic splashes of brilliant brass, especially to underpin the ecstatic cries of the chorus, he also writes, in the “Te ergo” and “Salvum fac,” music of great delicacy for the four vocal soloists, echoed by a soaring solo violin, Huscher writes.

The final section is a powerful double fugue—one of the themes is the broad, chordal music from the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony—that magnificently demonstrates both Bruckner’s technical brilliance and his spiritual strength.

As a religious statement, this is the most intense and immediate declaration of Bruckner’s unshakable faith. Mahler crossed out the lines in his score where Bruckner specifies his forces (“for chorus, solo voices and orchestra, organ . . .”), and wrote instead “for the tongues of angels, God-seekers, tormented hearts, and souls purified in the fire.”

On January 12, 1896, Bruckner attended his last concert—a performance of the Te Deum that had been set up by Brahms, one of his new champions. (The program also included a chorus by Bruckner’s idol Wagner and a piece of contemporary music, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, by the young Richard Strauss.) Bruckner was so ill and emaciated that he had to be carried into the concert hall, Vienna’s great Musikverein. Sensing that he would not live to finish his Ninth Symphony, Bruckner had already suggested using the Te Deum as a substitute finale, Huscher relates.

Bruckner died quietly the following October, after struggling for many months to complete the symphony. The Adagio of his Seventh Symphony was played at his funeral. Brahms arrived late, chose not to sit down, and was heard muttering that his own death was soon to follow (he died less than six months later).

Once, when Bruckner was asked how he would greet his beloved God in heaven, he said simply, “I will present to him the score of my Te Deum, and he will judge me mercifully.”