Masterworks 5 Program Notes
by Dr. Mark Eliot Jacobs
Jonathan Leshnoff: Rogue Sparks . World premiere performance of a Rogue Valley Symphony commissioned piece. Scored for 2 flutes with piccolo, 3 oboes with English horn, 3 clarinets with bass clarinet, 3 Bassoons with Contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (marimba, bass drum, snare drum, high wood block), harp and strings. Duration: about 5 minutes.
Rogue Sparks is an exuberant composition full of blissful fervor. Its five-minute duration belies the great depth of its contents. This seemingly fractal balance of depth and breadth along with its fast pace places it into a class of orchestral fanfares such as John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
With an Andante tempo of 92 half notes per minute, it incorporates rhythms at the double speed of 184 quarter notes per minute, well into the Presto range. The composer combines a rich expressive lyricism with a blistering drive which may very well produce sparks in the heart of the listener. Rogue Sparks does indeed sparkle.
Manuel De Falla: Noches en los Jardínes de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain) . Scored for solo piano, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, and strings. Duration: about 23 minutes.
Manuel de Falla was born in 1876 in Cádiz, Spain. He graduated from the Real Conservatorio de Música y Declamación in Madrid in 1899 with a first prize in piano. It was here that he began the study of the folk music of his native Andalusia in southern Spain. He also became interested in Flamenco, an art-form drawn from the traditions of Andalusia, Extermadura, and Murcia. All of these rich Spanish music materials became integral components of his compositions.
In 1907 Falla went to Paris for a seven day visit and ended up staying for seven years. He became friends with the major French composers of the time: Paul Dukas, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy among others. Shortly before the advent of World War One, Falla returned to Madrid. The composition of Noches was begun during his time in Paris but was completed in Spain during the war. It began as a set of three nocturnes for solo piano which Falla orchestrated at the suggestion of the pianist Ricardo Viñes.
As an irreverent comment from early twentieth century France would have it, the best Spanish music is French. Music conceived under the romantic emotional ideal of Spain by French composers are legion: Debussy’s Iberia (1910) and Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole (1911) come to mind as prime examples. Noches is steeped in the musical world of French impressionism but retains a distinct Spanish character.
Noches en los Jardínes de España, subtitled Symphonic Impressions for Piano and Orchestra, is a dreamlike tone poem in three movements. Its mysterious flowing progress admits only hints of a story and incorporates intimations of Flamenco music and quotations of Andalusian folk melodies. Falla wrote of the work,
The end for which this work was written is no other than to evoke places, sensations and sentiments. The themes employed are based on the rhythms, modes, cadences and ornamental figures which distinguish the popular music of Andalusia. The music has no pretentions to being descriptive – it is merely expressive. But something more than festivals and dances have inspired these “evocations in sound”, for melancholy and mystery also have their part.
The first movement, En el Generalife, is set in the gardens of the summer palace of the Alhambra, the Palacio de Generalife (from the Arabic Jannat al-‘Arīf meaning “Architect’s Garden”). The Alhambra was the center of power for the fourteenth century Moorish rulers of the Emirate of Granada in Al-Andalus. The gardens of the Generalife are noted for their profusion of jasmine. In his book The Music Masters: The Twentieth Century (1954), W. R. Anderson rhapsodized about En el Generalife, “the influence of the night, the fountains, dreamy patios, flowering pomegranates, and a sense of mystery and the ghosts of the past…”
The second movement, Danza lejana (“Distant Dance”) depicts an exotic dance which takes place in an unspecified garden. It includes a quotation from Dance of the Game of Love from Falla’s ballet El amor brujo. Its underlying sense of sadness is interrupted by high tremolo strings and a segue into the finale movement, En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba (“In the gardens of the Sierra de Cordoba”). This exploration of gypsy music is set during the Easter feast of Corpus Christi.
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op.45 . Scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, and xylophone), piano, harp, and strings. Duration: about 35 minutes.
The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, born in 1873 to an aristocratic family, ultimately led the life of a refugee. In 1906, he moved temporarily from Russia to Dresden, Germany seeking relief from increasing political turmoil at home. He composed his tone poem Isle of the Dead there in 1908. The October 1917 Revolution resulted in the Bolshevik’s seizure of his ancestral estate Ivanovka, located near Tambov, Russia. In December 1917, Rachmaninoff and his family left Russia for good, traveling by open sled through Finland to Stockholm, Sweden. They toured throughout Scandinavia while Sergei performed piano recitals. In 1918, the Rachmaninoffs left on a ship from Oslo, Norway for New York City. He spent the next decades concertizing all over the United States and Europe. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Rachmaninoff left Europe for the last time to stay in the United States. The Rachmaninoffs made their New York home as much like the one that they left behind at Ivanovka.
Rachmaninoff completed his Third Symphony in 1936. The response of critics and the public was lukewarm at best. After its premiere he stopped composing and refocused all his energies on his distinguished career as a concert pianist. With the notable exception of his Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934), his compositions inspired little enthusiasm. He was discouraged by disparaging comparisons between his works and those of more avant-garde contemporary composers like Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.
Nevertheless, during his preparations for the new season’s recitals in the summer of 1940 he rediscovered his interest in composition and began working on the Symphonic Dances, completing them in October of that year. It would be his final composition, and the only one written in the United States. In a letter to Eugene Ormandy, then the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Rachmaninoff referred to the work by the title Fantastic Dances, with the movements “Noon”, “Twilight”, and “Midnight”. The title of the work evolved into Symphonic Dances as Rachmaninoff orchestrated it. Like Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”), Symphonic Dances is an autobiographical piece and includes quotations from the composer’s earlier works.
Symphonic Dances was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in January 1941. Rachmaninoff had intended the dances to be used for a ballet to be designed by his friend Michel Fokine, the innovative Russian choreographer. Unfortunately, Fokine died in 1942, and a Symphonic Dances ballet was never to be. Fokine staged more than eighty ballets in Europe and the United States, including 1939’s Paganini based on Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Rachmaninoff is quoted as saying, “A composer always has his own ideas of his works, but I do not believe he ever should reveal them. Each listener should find his own meaning in the music.” The following observations may help to shape those ideas.
The first dance, Non Allegro, prominently features the alto saxophone. Having never written for the instrument, Rachmaninoff consulted with the Broadway orchestrator and composer Robert Russel Bennett (1894 – 1981). He also consulted Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962) on string bowings. The movement, in an A-B-A form, is unified by a descending three-note motive which is aggregated in various ways throughout. The coda quotes the opening of his First Symphony (1896). The symphony itself was not successful at its premiere, and Rachmaninoff destroyed the score. Shortly after the composer’s death, his hope to be the only listener to ever catch the reference was dashed when a two-piano version and a set of orchestra parts of the First Symphony were unearthed.
The second dance, Andante con moto, is a waltz; a waltz experienced through a misty dream. Edgy chords in muted trumpets and stopped horns start the movement. An English horn solo helps to set the nocturnal mood. The brass chords from the beginning articulate the movement a few more times, joined by muted trombones and tuba.
In the finale, Lento assai – Allegro vivace, Rachmaninoff meditates on his own death. He quotes chants from the Russian Orthodox and Gregorian liturgies. Rogue Valley Symphony listeners will recognize Rachmaninoff’s predilection for the dire Dies irae chant melody from the Gregorian mass for the dead. He used it previously in The Isle of the Dead and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and now here in the finale of the Symphonic Dances.
Dies iræ, dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Day of wrath and doom impending.
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending
Also prominent in the finale is Rachmaninoff’s own All-Night Vigil (1915). Near the end of the score is printed the inscription “Alliluya.” At the end of his original manuscript, the composer wrote, “I thank Thee, Lord!”
Although his music is rich and complex, Rachmaninoff’s compositional process was simplicity itself. As he once said in an interview, “I try to make music speak directly and simply that which is in my heart at the time I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.”