Masterworks 2 Program Notes
by Ed Wight
COTTON: Cantus (2017)
A glance at I’lana Cotton’s biography reveals a life totally immersed in music. She’s been a teacher (20 years on the music faculty of College of San Mateo), performer, accompanist, improviser – and leader, helping develop two local music organizations. Her career also documents her main calling, with a Masters of Music in Composition from ULCA, and now as a freelance composer. One striking fact emerges from her work list: she’s written far more chamber music than any other genre. That entails a love of counterpoint, which provides a valuable perspective into Cantus. The Spiritus theme features a canon, the strictest form of contrapuntal writing. Listen not only for the four major themes in the piece, but the swirling musical dialogue around them. And given her time as dance accompanist in the Bay Area, it’s no surprise she turns to not one but two dances in the middle section of her piece. Finally, Cotton turns back to the Medieval and Renaissance definition of ‘cantus’ as melody. After embedding it within rich counterpoint for much of the piece, listen especially for the concluding section as she finally allows that cantus theme to shine prominently in the oboe.
I’lana Cotton describes Cantus as follows:
“Cantus is a large-scale, single-movement work. It was envisioned as a complex musical telling of the stories of cosmic origins and the emergence of forms. The piece begins with an auditory landscape of motion and orchestral flurry which seems chaotic at first. But it gradually coalesces into harmonies, and then into motives and themes.
These are rooted in a single core melody, or cantus, of 20 notes, from which the primary materials of the piece were generated. The cantus itself appears several times throughout the work, often nearly embedded in more complex tapestries, until it finally emerges as a solo song near the end of the work.
Various themes emerge which recur and are developed throughout the piece. The Call theme appears in a first sequence of powerful chordal phrases. It calls the opening chaotic flurries into a section of more orderly simultaneous melodies. These melodies (including a first embedded version of the cantus) compete and interweave freely until they are eventually brought to a focal unison cadence.
This cadence becomes the ground (in the timpani) for the Spiritus theme – a single melody of long arching contours presented in a 3-voice canon for the strings. This gives rise to a second strong chordal theme, The Response.
A middle section is comprised of two Dances, interspersed with variations of The Response. The first dance is a light heterophonic texture of solo voices with dumbek, an African drum. The second has a stronger monophonic texture along with field drum and wood block.
This leads to a compression of previous materials, which gains tension as it merges towards an epic arrival point. That moment states The Response for the final time, followed by a renewal of The Call. The denoument reveals the cantus as it is finally presented with its original counterpoints, then as an expressive melody sung by the solo oboe. A final Call ushers in a hint of new cycles.”
HAYDN: Symphony no. 103 in E-flat MAJOR (1795)
For almost twenty years, Haydn’s symphonies and string quartets had been the most popular items in Europe’s musical catalogs. When impresario Johan Salomon invited Haydn to London to write new symphonies for his concert series in 1791, Haydn was widely viewed as the greatest living composer. His first visit proved so popular that Haydn returned to England in 1794-95. Salomon temporarily disbanded his concert series in 1795, so Haydn composed the final three symphonies of his career (102, 103, and 104) for a rival series: the ‘Opera Concerts’ under Giovanni Viotti. With sixty members, Haydn found himself writing for the largest orchestra of his career – and he didn’t disappoint.
Haydn’s twelve London symphonies featured his most advanced orchestration. Unlike typical 18th century practice, Haydn now separated the cellos and bassoons from the bass part. Both the first and final movements of Symphony 103 feature brief bassoon solos. He used clarinets for the first time on this second London visit, and today’s finale includes a brief clarinet solo. Haydn also grants the timpani greater independence, and saves his most radical step for the opening bar of 103. The solo timpani roll gives this symphony its nickname “Drum roll.”
The rest of the introduction, Haydn’s longest for any symphony, also plays a significant structural role. It suggests powerful drama, opening with the first four pitches of the Dies Irae (‘day of wrath’). And it remains harmonically ambiguous, as the final pause on the pitch G does not prepare the E-flat Major of the opening dance-like theme of the following Allegro. To a degree unprecedented for an introduction, it reappears throughout this Sonata-form movement: in diminution as the active secondary theme, repeating the same unusual cadence (emphasized with a fermata) in the development section, and returning in the original Adagio tempo with timpani roll in the coda. Aside from this complex structure, listen also for a moment of true relaxation, a lovely ball-room dance (Landler) right before the closing theme.
In this late symphony, I suppose Haydn’s not content with a simple variation movement. He ups the ante with one of his hybrids, a Double Variation movement. Haydn pairs an opening theme in C minor with a following theme in C Major, stating each pair three times with the increasing complexity typical of the variation genre. Viotti was one of the great violin virtuosos of the era, and Haydn provides him with a mini-concerto in the second C Major section. He bases the themes on two Croatian folk songs, but adds a further level of sophistication: they are variants of each other as well! The Minuet and Trio comes complete with Austrian yodels. Be ready for those horn and flute echoes at the end of the first phrase. And just when this seems like another simple dance movement, Haydn plunges into a remote G-flat Major passage complete with both major- and diminished-7th chords.
Haydn opens the Sonata-rondo finale with a horn call lasting four bars. That theme and the following eight-bar refrain in the violins provide the major thematic material for one of the most motivically saturated Rondo movements of Haydn’s career. The first-movement introduction makes a final appearance as well, with that same unusual cadence on G (again emphasized by fermata) followed directly by the recap in E flat. Haydn’s greatness is on full display, as this symphony features his penchant for sophisticated structure – yet also ballroom dance, folksongs, yodels and horn calls!
Typical of the 18th-century love of variety, these London orchestral concerts also featured songs, opera excerpts, vocal ensembles, concertos, string quartets and other chamber works. Yet Salomon brought Haydn to London because of his symphonies, and they were the featured works on the concerts. For the first time in history, symphonies now became the primary focus of an orchestral concert. Symphony scholar Mary Sue Morrow writes “a single complete symphony given a place of importance on the concert did not [consistently] occur until well into the 19th century.” Well known in the three major music capitals of Europe (including two separate commissions from Paris) and with over 100 works – by far the greatest collection of 18th century symphonies – Haydn is directly responsible for that transformation.
BEETHOVEN: Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C Major, Op. 56 “Triple Concerto” (1804)
By 1803 Beethoven had already wrestled for several years with the devastation of his impending hearing loss. The lucrative income from his piano performances would soon disappear. Worried over his freelance status in Vienna, and dissatisfied at having no permanent position or steady income, he considered leaving for Paris. Beethoven’s friend and piano student Ferdinand Ries wrote to the publisher Simrock that Beethoven wanted to finish his opera and “is then going to Paris, which disappoints me greatly.” Ries later told Simrock that Beethoven called his new symphony ‘Bonaparte’ [Symphony no. 3 ‘Eroica’] and wanted to dedicate his new Violin Sonata in A Major [Op. 47] to Rodolphe Kreutzer and Louis Adam “as the first violinist and pianist in Paris.” Even more ominously, Beethoven started writing a concerto for violin, cello, and piano later that year in a Parisian style.
The Symphonie concertante genre flourished in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, primarily in Paris. Composers usually chose a deliberately “lighthearted character” (1988 Norton/Grove Encyclopedia) in these concertos for two, three or four solo instruments and orchestra. These works “satisfied a taste for virtuoso display, colorful sonorities and a pleasing melodic line” (Norton/Grove). Beethoven also referred to his new concerto as a concertante. While his ‘Eroica’ Symphony and the recent C Minor Piano Concerto “burn with a sense of urgency and dramatic fury, this Triple Concerto lacks their tension: this is expansive music, relaxed and agreeable rather than striving” (music critic Eric Bomberger).
One such ‘colorful sonority’ opens the concerto, with Beethoven fashioning a dark color for cellos and basses alone. Never letting anything go to waste, this opening gesture heralds a remarkable feature here. The primary and secondary themes, development section, and the final two movements all open similarly – with cello solos. Beethoven had been stung with criticism that he favored the piano too prominently in some early chamber works, so he now turns often to the strings. Furthermore, he wrote the very first cello sonatas in history (Op. 5) “the founding works of the cello sonata genre as we know it today” (David Gislasson). Those sonatas exploited all ranges of the cello, especially the warm, melodic tenor voice heard so often in the beautiful themes found throughout this concerto.
All three solo instruments state most of the themes as well as quick imitative, motivic passages, contributing to an expansive opening Allegro movement of over 500 bars. Now often coming last, the piano sometimes provides richer harmonic color, especially in its treatment of the secondary theme in this movement, a lyrical and beautiful moment straight out of Mozart.
A lovely cello theme of great breadth against a muted string background opens the slow Largo movement in beautiful fashion. Beethoven sets this movement primarily for the trio soloists, with only light orchestral accompaniment. The violin leads the second statement of theme, covering the second half of the movement, and then a brief passage heads directly to the lighthearted finale. Beethoven titles it Rondo alla Polacca, featuring frequent rhythms of the Polonaise, a Polish dance. This movement especially dwells on quick imitative motivic dialogue in a playful spirit between the soloists. The cello again states the opening refrain theme, virtuosic piano figuration initiates the first episode, and a violin theme in A Minor opens the second.
Beethoven remained in Vienna after all. And though written in the more casual, informal mood typical of a Symphonie concertante, his mature style nonetheless permeates this entire composition. Beethoven often dissolved the barriers between separate movements in his middle and late works, joining the finale to the previous movement as he does here. His penchant for motivic saturation means that aspects of the first movement’s primary theme rhythm (the dotted 8th and 16th-note figure) also appears in the transition, secondary and closing themes. Haydn, Mozart, and all 18th-century composers wrote G Major secondary themes for a work in C Major. Beethoven’s richer harmonic palette sets this one in A major, however. So enjoy the sophistication of a comparatively lighter Beethoven orchestral work that merits more frequent performances.