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Masterworks 1 Program Notes (2019-20 Season)

Masterworks 1 Program Notes (2019-20 Season)

Masterworks 1: Interstellar Symphony

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Notes on the Program

Whether you’re attending the first Masterworks of the 2019-20 season and are interested in more information about the program, or just eager to learn more about music – please enjoy these program notes!

Gustav Holst: The Planets

To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit. – Stephen Hawking

We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. – Carl Sagan

Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 B.M.E.), everyone’s favorite Greek mathematician, was not just obsessed with triangles, but delved deeply into the relationship between music and mathematics, and, by association, between music and astronomy. Through experimentation, he divined that musical ratios were in fact mathematical ratios. He found that a vibrating string produced a musical tone, and a string half that length produced a tone one octave higher. Other mathematical proportions of string length (1/3, 2/3, 1/4, 1/5, etc.) produced other tones in relation to the original pitch – what we know today as the overtone series or harmonic series, which is the basis for our modern concepts of pitch, tuning, and harmony.

 

Pythagoras postulated that the planets of the solar system, being in motion around the earth, also created their own cosmic vibrations and hence their own musical sounds, sounds that could not be heard by human ears. This concept came to be known as “the music of the spheres,” with each heavenly body rotating in concentric crystal spheres around the earth, creating sublime heavenly music. This metaphysical concept was accepted by scientific minds well into the Renaissance. Even as late as 1619, the groundbreaking astronomer Johannes Kepler, in his Harmonices Mundi, went to great lengths to demonstrate the connection between planetary motion and musical sounds and their effect on human emotions, including associating particular musical intervals with each of the planets.

 

From this description, you might think that Kepler was thinking as much like an astrologer as an astronomer, and to some extent you’d be right. In Kepler’s time, astrology was an integral part of astronomy. While serving as Imperial Mathematician at the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, both Kepler and his predecessor and mentor, Tycho Brahe, cast horoscopes for the Emperor as one of their primary duties. Kepler had abandoned the Pythagorean earth-centered model of the universe in favor of the Copernican concept of the planets rotating around the sun, and he developed his own mathematical proofs (based on Brahe’s meticulous observations) of the planets following elliptical rather than perfectly circular orbits. His logic was that the new Copernican view of the universe would allow even more accurate horoscopes to be cast, which was music to the ears of the astrology-obsessed Rudolf.

 

Gustav Holst found the connections between music, astronomy, and astrology fascinating, even if modern science no longer regarded astrology as a serious discipline. A nearsighted polymath whose studies ran the gamut from collecting English folk songs to learning Sanskrit, Holst began dabbling in astrology shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, and often cast horoscopes for his friends just for fun. When it came to writing The Planets, he wanted to present the astrological aspects of each planet as metaphors for the human psyche, and for their influence upon human beings.

 

Holst began initial sketches for the work in the summer of 1914 and wrote each movement in order, with the exception of Mercury, which he wrote last. Various orchestras and conductors gave partial performances of The Planets during 1918 and 1919, but the first full performance had to wait until October 1920. For the premiere, Holst provided a brief note disavowing any graphic depictions in the work:

 

These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no programme music, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it be used in the broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also the more ceremonial type of rejoicing associated with religions or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment. Mercury is the symbol of mind.

 

The suite is arranged according to the musical logic of each piece, but it is interesting to note that the first three movements proceed inwards towards the sun from our solar system’s asteroid belt, while the final four movements journey outwards, with the quiet close of Neptune sending us out towards the rest of the cosmos.

 

Mars, the Bringer of War. The brutal, mechanized tread of Mars echoes the carnage taking place across the war-torn fields of France at the time it was written, though Holst began sketching this movement shortly before the war began. The conductor of the premiere, Sir Adrian Boult, recalled in an interview over fifty years later that the quality that Holst most wished to convey in Mars was the stupidity of war. A relentless ostinato in 5/4 time dominates the movement, beginning quietly in col legno strings (the players using the wood of the bow) and sinister brass. The movement rises to a hideous, shattering climax, with the full orchestra screaming out savage, dissonant chords before finally achieving a grudging resolution.

 

Venus, the Bringer of Peace. A lone horn and calm, sweet woodwind harmonies dispel the tensions of Mars. The horn, solo violin, solo oboe, and the violin section all sing rapturously over a lush orchestral carpet of woodwinds, harp, and celesta.

 

Mercury, the Winged Messenger. While Holst insisted that none of the movements were portraits of the gods after whom the planets were named, it’s difficult not to imagine Mercury flitting across the cosmos in his winged cap and boots when hearing Holst’s quicksilver scherzo, with its irregular phrasing and shifting meters.

 

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. Led by a frenetic upward flourish in the strings, the orchestra roars to life in uninhibited high spirits at the start of Jupiter. The music is bold and lusty, bursting with an irresistible energy and a melodic style reminiscent of English folk dances – one might be forgiven for thinking that Jove and Sir John Falstaff are first cousins. The great, beautiful tune of the central section made such an impression that Holst later recast it for choir to the words “I vow to thee, my country.”

 

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age. Saturn’s walk to oblivion is a solemn cortege, characterized by simple chorale-like chords that grow in volume and intensity throughout the movement. Holst’s daughter, Imogen, recalled that these alternating dissonant harmonies are a reminiscence of two elderly gentlemen in black robes ringing the church bells at Durham Cathedral before services. The orchestra rises to an anguished, full-throated roar, but the final bars offer a glimpse of peace and acceptance.

 

Uranus, the Magician. It might be tempting to think of this movement as “Sorcerer’s Apprentice II” or “Son of Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” but Adrian Boult was adamant that Holst had never heard Dukas’s symphonic scherzo before he wrote Uranus. Unison brass invoke a spell that receives a savage flick of the magician’s (timpanist’s) wand before the orchestra sets off on a jaunty romp full of rhythmic slight-of-hand and bluff humor. Rather than a brash ending, Uranus follows the movement’s climax with the harp quietly intoning the first four-note idea, as though Prospero has grown disillusioned with his magic, hung up his robes and broken his wand.

 

Neptune, the Mystic. Holst instructed that the entire orchestra play pianissimo throughout. Mellifluous woodwind lines wander through a mysterious texture of harp, celesta, and muted strings. Like Debussy in his Nocturnes, Holst introduced a wordless female chorus, here evoking the vast and (at the time) unknown depths of interstellar space that lie beyond the limits of our vision and our imagination. Holst instructed that the chorus’s final measure be “repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.”

 

Recent studies in quantum physics indicate that atoms and molecules function not just as particles, but as vibrations and waves and at specific frequencies – just like musical pitches. In other words, the universe doesn’t just produce music, it IS music, and we, down to our smallest atomic particle, are all part of this vast cosmic symphony. Maybe old Pythagoras had it right after all.

 

Launy Grøndahl: Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra

In my opinion, the trombone is the true head of the family of wind instruments, which I have named the ‘epic’ one. It possesses nobility and grandeur to the highest degree; it has all the serious and powerful tones of sublime musical poetry, from religious, calm and imposing accents to savage, orgiastic outburst. Directed by the will of the master, the trombones can chant like a choir of priests, threaten, utter gloomy sighs, a mournful lament, or a bright hymn of glory; they can break forth into awe-inspiring cries and awaken the dead or doom the living with their fearful voices.  – Hector Berlioz, Treatise on Orchestration

Many a sinner has played himself into heaven on the trombone.—George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara 

Despite the opinions of the great French composer and the great Irish playwright shown above, the trombone has had a long road to acceptance as a member of the symphony orchestra and as a solo instrument in its own right. It was not until Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1806) that a section of three trombones appeared regularly in a symphony orchestra, and only in the 20th century did the trombone step off the back risers and into the spotlight as a soloist.

 

Launy Grøndahl’s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra (1924) is a landmark for a trombone concerto in the 20th century, a successor to the concerto by Rimsky-Korsakov, and a predecessor to concertos by Paul Creston, Henri Tomasi, and Christopher Rouse. Grøndahl was a musical prodigy, beginning his musical studies at the age of 8 and joining a professional orchestra as a violinist at the age of 13. He studied composition with Ernest Bloch and Carl Nielsen, and he spent most of his career as the conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, which he led from 1925 to 1956.

 

Grøndahl wrote the concerto in the summer of 1924 on a trip to Italy. Vilhelm Aarkogh, principal trombone of the Orchestra of the Casino Theatre in Copenhagen, gave the first performance later in the same year.  Grøndahl drew inspiration for the work from the trombone section of the Orchestra of the Casino Theatre, whose playing he greatly admired.

 

The work is in three movements. The opening Moderato assai ma molto maestoso begins with a dramatic proclamation from the soloist over a stormy orchestral accompaniment. A more lyrical second theme sings sweetly and gently, evoking the music of Grøndahl’s teacher, Carl Nielsen. In the slow movement, Quasi una Leggenda: Andante grave, the soloist sings a solemn hymn over the measured tread of the orchestra. A subsequent section in 6/8 time provides a gentle respite, with the trombone rhapsodizing over a magical orchestral texture where the piano evokes the sound of distant bells. The finale, Maestoso – Rondo, opens with a brief orchestral recitative, leading into a cadenza for the soloist. The dance that follows portrays the trombone in a wide range of moods, from soulfully lyrical to angry and dramatic. In one last burst of energy, the tempo accelerates into an unexpectedly brusque ending.

 

John Williams: Star Wars Suite 

Few of us can forget the visceral thrill of our first time hearing the opening brass fanfare of the Star Wars Main Title thunder from movie theater speakers as the words “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” scrolled slowly up the screen. The first episode (technically Episode IV) of George Lucas’s monumental space epic burst upon the movie-going public in May of 1977 as a new take on tried-and-true formulas. While drawing on influences as diverse as Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, the Buck Rogers serials of the 1930s and even Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars managed to be both fresh and familiar at the same time. It transformed its trio of young and relatively unknown principal actors into instant Hollywood stars, and it spawned a ferociously loyal fan base that has grown and strengthened over the past four decades, as each new generation discovered the original trilogy and its subsequent prequels and sequels.

 

Just as Lucas’s film draws its influences from cinematic classics, the score for Star Wars harkens back to the epic orchestral scores of the golden age of Hollywood. While John Williams seemed to come out of nowhere to produce his striking scores for Jaws (1975), Midway (1976) and Star Wars, his fame was the culmination of over two decades in Hollywood, writing for both film and television. Radically different in tone than his more modernist music for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Williams’s Star Wars music draws heavily on the late-Romantic traditions of Mahler and Strauss as well as the film music of Korngold, Max Steiner, Miklos Rosza, Dmitri Tiomkin, and Bernard Herrmann. Williams also manages to achieve musical coherence in the same way that Wagner did – Star Wars characters have their own musical leitmotivs, tunes identified with specific characters which change in harmony and orchestration according to the situation onscreen, a unifying connection that ties all of the series’ films together. Even The Force receives its own signature tune.

 

The suite heard this evening draws on five excerpts from the score: the Main Title is perhaps the most famous opening in all of cinema, with its muscular fanfares and driving rhythms. Princess Leia’s theme portrays Princess Leia Organa’s mystery and her ties to The Force in a lyrical theme heard in the solo horn and then in the solo flute over murmuring strings. The brutal, relentless ostinato of The Imperial March paints a picture of both the vast military might of The Imperial Empire and of the unwavering malice of the film’s villain, Darth Vader. Yoda’s Theme, taken from the music for The Empire Strikes Back, uses a calm and lyrical string melody to depict the 900-year old Jedi master. The final Throne Room and End Title accompanies the closing scene in Star Wars where Leia awards medals to the heroes who destroyed the Death Star.

 

– Notes by Dr. David Cole, ©2019