By Ed Wight
ETHAN GANS-MORSE: How Can You Own The Sky? (2017)
This 50th anniversary season featured five premieres or co-commissions of new orchestral music – one for each decade. What could be more fitting in this celebration of the Rogue Valley Symphony than to frame the season with award-winning Rogue Valley composers? We began in October with the premiere of a new work (Cantus) by I’lana Cotton, and we close this weekend with another premiere, a symphonic poem How Can You Own The Sky? (which references Rogue Valley history) by Ethan Gans-Morse.
His music has been performed by professional ensembles in Europe, Mexico, Taiwan, and throughout the United States. With a Master’s Degree in Composition from the University of Oregon, he has written three orchestral works, two operas—Including The Canticle of the Black Madonna, which The Oregonian called “A huge achievement”— choral and solo vocal music, two string quartets, and a variety of other chamber music from duos to a septet. He and his wife Tiziana DellaRovere often focus on collaborative, socially relevant projects, and the Eugene Weekly writes that he “uses classical and postclassical forms to help us understand the…realities of the world we live in.”
The Dancing Spirit Ensemble opens by performing and original melody, The Song of the Heart, by Brent Florendo. Brent then narrates the poetic libretto of How Can You Own the Sky by DellaRovere before each of the four corresponding sections of this symphonic poem. The following comments paraphrase Gans-Morse’s more extensive description of the work.
THE SACRED HOOP IS CREATED deals with the myths of creation for the Native American people of the Rogue Valley. The orchestral introduction presents two recurring characters: Solo Violin (“The Giver”) and English horn (“The Beloved”). Two main themes follow, both based on aspects of The Song of the Heart, not yet fully realized but continuously unfolding.
THE SACRED HOOP IS PRESERVED is “reminiscent of a scherzo.” It details the struggles of the Takelma people to come into harmony with the familiar landmarks of the Rogue Valley. When they reach that harmony with each other and the land, The Song of the Heart is presented as an English horn solo, the first time we hear it fully formed in the orchestra.
THE SACRED HOOP IS BROKEN depicts “the nightmares of the Rogue River Wars of the 1850s.” Gans-Morse sets it as a tragic passacaglia passed throughout the orchestra. The results reflect the outcome of the nation-wide Indian Wars, with initial mutual devastation and loss of life giving way to the forced re-settlement of the Native American population onto reservations. The Takelma, Shasta, and Athapascan people are driven on “Oregon’s own trail of tears” to the Siletz Reservation near the coast – and The Song of the Heart seems only a distant memory.
THE SACRED HOOP IS RESTORED “Out of the ashes of seeming annihilation, ‘The Giver’ returns [once again] in the guise of the solo violin.” The violin teaches each section of the orchestra to participate in a “new declaration of hope and longing.” This prepares for the final triumphant return of the Dancing Spirit ensemble and The Song of the Heart – and a hoped-for “new dawn of reconciliation between all peoples of Oregon and beyond.”
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 125 “Choral” (1824)
When Beethoven finally began to focus consistently on his ninth symphony in 1822, it had been ten years since the completion of his previous symphony (no. 8 in F Major, from 1812). That was the longest gap between consecutive symphonies in his career, and in the intervening years Beethoven’s style changed enormously. Such massive works as the Hammerklavier piano sonata, the Missa Solemnis, and the Diabelli Variations ushered in his ‘late’ style.
Reflecting this new style, “the fundamental novelty of the 9th Symphony…resulted from the unprecedented spaciousness and grandeur of the work” (Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon). The first three movements alone – lasting about 45 minutes – dwarf most earlier symphonies. Symphonies of the 18th century lasted between 15-20 minutes, and all earlier Beethoven symphonies except the Eroica ran between 25-35 minutes. Not until the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler in the 1880s and 1890s did symphonies consistently last an hour or more – a length that Beethoven’s 9th already exceeded in 1824.
The length itself remains irrelevant, however; what matters is that with this work “Beethoven ambitiously redefined the scope and nature of the symphony” (critic Steve Lowe). At the very opening, Beethoven’s sustained passage of soft tremolo strings – ‘beginning out of nothing’ – influenced many later symphonic composers. And as is well known, Beethoven’s 9th brought singers into a symphony for the first time in the history of the genre. Their performance of excerpts from Friedrich Schiller’s poem An die Freude (“Ode to Joy”) in the final movement becomes the focal point, the goal, of the entire symphony. Symphony scholar A. Peter Brown writes that now, “Finales become more than last movements; they were destinations…Here, the so-called ‘Finale symphony’ was established, and it became a preoccupation of composers into the mid-20th century” (italics added).
That hushed tremolo is not the only remarkable aspect of the opening passage. Beethoven sets its first 15 bars on pitches A and E, providing no indication that the symphony is in D Minor. No previous symphony opening obscured the home key for so long. And instead of simply presenting the opening theme, the audience gets to listen to it take shape – gradually accelerating from the soft, widely spaced two-note motives at the beginning to the more concentrated motivic work and the ferocious climax of the theme for full orchestra. Beethoven then promptly changes harmonic perspective, repeating all this in a new key as the beginning of a transition to the secondary theme of this Sonata-form movement. He fashions that soft and lyrical new theme out of a dialogue between the woodwind melody and a 16th-note arpeggio counterpoint in the strings. At the recap, Beethoven turns to D Major for the opening theme. But instead of a sense of resolution, this merely intensifies the mood. Beethoven delays the return of D Minor until the coda, where a monumentally powerful passage finally re-unites home key with primary theme.
The grandeur continues with the longest Scherzo of Beethoven’s career. He shapes its 410 bars into a sonata-form movement complete with several fugal expositions, all based on the motive in the opening bar and the initial 4-bar phrase. More harmonic surprises abound: the dramatic solo timpani strokes on that opening motive are never in the home key. And Beethoven sets the secondary theme in the extremely remote key of C Major – unprecedented for a sonata movement in D Minor. That brief theme brings little lyrical relief; Beethoven saves that for the 189-bar Trio, a soft, pastoral section in D Major introduced by the woodwinds.
One of Beethoven’s most glorious hymn-like melodies of great breadth serves as the primary theme of the Adagio molto e cantabile movement in Double Variation form. Its mood of gentle humanity anchors the movement in B-flat Major. It frames the slightly faster and lyrical second theme, presented first in the strings in D Major, and later (after a return of the primary theme) slightly varied in the winds in a G major setting begun by the flute. Beethoven’s late-period variations “re-vitalized the genre” (musicologist Elaine Sisman), as he next ranges far afield – changing key, tempo, and meter – for a development section based on the primary theme.
After the Napoleonic wars, Kings and Presidents wanted to reclaim power – and newly-won freedoms came under assault everywhere in Europe. “But Austria under Metternich…became the leading model of repression” (musicologist Lewis Lockwood). His 1819 ‘Karlsbad Decrees’ were passed “to spy on faculty members considered subversive and to suppress political societies.” Police spies were everywhere in Vienna. In 1816 Beethoven already complained ‘”There’s no one you can trust.” In such a police state, Beethoven had long since abandoned his original intent in 1793 in to set Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ as a solo song for a private audience. Its message of freedom and universal brotherhood needed “to be performed on the grandest possible scale in the concert hall, the most public of settings” (Lockwood) – and in Beethoven’s longest symphonic movement, just short of 1000 bars!
The orchestra recalls the ferocious minor-mode moods and themes of the first three movements, rejects them, and then offers the triumph of the “Ode to Joy” theme, now set in D Major that is finally a true resolution (unlike the first movement). This sets the stage for the soloists and chorus.
Both Schiller and Beethoven balanced the secular and sacred components of the poem. From Schiller’s 1803 revision Beethoven used six verses – and focuses especially on two of them. The first verse (Freude, schoener Gotterfunken) celebrates secular concerns – the search for joy and universal brotherhood – and Beethoven sets it five times, as a refrain on the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme. Verse 5 (Seid umschlungen, Millionen!) treats sacred concerns, emphasizing beyond the skies above to the home of a loving Father. Beethoven sets it three times – first as late choral interlude in G Major. He then intertwines these two main themes (secular and sacred) simultaneously for the climactic double fugue – which begins only after a long chromatic passage, a full pause, and the final triumphant return of the home key D major.
We sometimes forget how fragile artistic creation can be. Schiller detested the 1795 “Ode to Joy” poem late in his life: he thought it “entirely flawed…it still remains a bad poem.” Yet his 1803 revision kept most of it intact. Beethoven held severe doubts about the choral finale, and was tempted to replace it with an instrumental finale, especially after the mixed reviews of the first performances. Thank goodness neither artist surrendered to these grave misgivings, because in its appeal to freedom and universal brotherhood, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony transcends its time. It has become the musical work “most often chosen to solemnize an important event – the opening of the United Nations, the signing of a peace treaty” (critic Harvey Sachs). At the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Leonard Bernstein led orchestras and choruses of the Allied nations and Germany in a performance in East Berlin. They changed one word – joy (“freude”) became freedom (“freiheit”). What other piece of music could they possibly have chosen for such an important celebration?