Small Stage Symphony – Appalachian Spring

Small Stage Symphony – Appalachian Spring

February 6
BIG ARTS Schein Hall, Sanibel

February 7
Shell Point Village Church

February 8
Saint Leo the Great Catholic Church, Bonita Springs

All concert times 7:30 pm

Milhaud – La création du monde, Op. 81/Copland – Suite from Appalachian Spring/ Wagner – Siegfried Idyll/ Ibert – Divertissement/Darius Milhaud La création du monde, Ballet in One Act, Op. 81

 Composer: born September 4, 1892, Marseilles; died June 22, 1974, Geneva

Work composed: 1923, based on a libretto by Blaise Cendrars. Commissioned by the Ballets Suédois, a Swedish ballet company based in Paris in the early 1920s.

World premiere: October 25, 1923 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Choreographed by Jean Börlin.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, E-flat alto saxophone, bassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, 5 timpani, bass drum, cowbell, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, tenor drum, tom tom, woodblock, piano, 2 violins, cello, and bass

Estimated duration: 17 minutes

 “I take the liberty of calling this work a masterpiece because it has the one real requisite of a masterpiece – durability. Among all those experiments with jazz that Europe flirted with in this period, only The Creation of the World emerges complete, not as a flirtation but as a real love affair with jazz.” – Leonard Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music, 1966

 In 1920, Darius Milhaud heard Billy Arnold’s Jazz Band perform in London. Milhaud was captivated by the new sounds of jazz, especially its off-beat rhythms and use of “blue notes” that bent conventional scales. Three years later, Milhaud went to New York to immerse himself in this astonishing new music. In his memoirs, Milhaud recalled, “Harlem had not yet been discovered by the snobs and aesthetes: we were the only white folks there. The music I heard was absolutely different from anything I had ever heard before and was a revelation to me. Against the beat of the drums melodic lines crisscrossed in a breathless pattern of broken and twisted rhythms. A Negress whose grating voice seemed to come from the depths of the centuries sang with despairing pathos and dramatic feeling … Its effect on me was so overwhelming that I could not tear myself away … As soon as I came back from the United States,” Milhaud continued, “I got in touch with [designer] Fernand Léger and [librettist] Blaise Cendrars, with whom I was to work on a new ballet for Rolf de Maré [artistic director of Ballets Suédois]. Cendrars chose for the subject of his scenario the creation of the world, going for his inspiration to African folklore, in which he was particularly deeply versed [In 1921, Cendrars published Anthologie negre, a collection of African creation stories] … At last, in La création du monde, I had the opportunity I had been waiting for to use those elements of jazz to which I had devoted so much study. I adopted the same orchestra as used in Harlem, and I made wholesale use of the jazz style to convey a purely classical feeling.”

The 17-minute ballet’s six sections are played without pause. The Overture introduces the solo alto saxophone, an instrument wholly new to classical music audiences in 1923. In The Chaos Before the Creation, the double bass plays the subject of a complex jazz fugue; Milhaud unleashes jazz riffs for solo winds and brasses, which echo the fugue in swinging fragments punctuated by the percussion battery. The chaos subsides into The Birth of the Plants and Animals. A solo flute intones the saxophone’s original tune, while the oboe introduces a new melody, full of bluesy melancholy. Abruptly, Milhaud shifts gears, marking The Birth of Man and Woman with a snazzy cakewalk, originally a 19th-century celebratory dance of newly emancipated African Americans. By the 1920s, the cakewalk, along with the shimmy, Charleston, lindy hop, and other popular dances of the day, had captured the hearts and feet of America’s post-war youth. Desire features a playful solo for clarinet, which eventually morphs into a slow, sensual melody for various solo instruments. In the concluding Spring, or Appeasement, Milhaud brings back themes from the previous sections, including the solo oboe’s blues and the opening notes of the sax. The ballet ends quietly on a serene jazz harmony (Dmaj9).

Aaron Copland

Suite from Appalachian Spring

 Composer: born November 14, 1900, Brooklyn, NY; died December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown, NY

 Work composed: 1943-4. Copland won a Pulitzer Prize for the ballet score in 1945. Copland conducted the premiere of the ballet at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. on October 30, 1944, the birthday of arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, to celebrate 25 years of her musical philanthropy. Conductor Artur Rodziński led the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of the orchestral suite on October 4, 1945.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, bass drum, claves, orchestra bells, snare drum, cymbal, tabor, triangle, wood bloc, xylophone, piano, harp and strings.

Estimated duration: 24 minutes

Shortly before the debut of Ballet for Martha, Aaron Copland’s working title for the ballet Martha Graham had commissioned from him, the choreographer announced she had decided on the name Appalachian Spring. Graham, who borrowed the words from Hart Crane’s poem, The Dance, admitted she had chosen it simply because she liked the sound of the words together, and that it had no connection with either the location or scenario of the ballet. “Over and over again,” Copland recalled in 1981, “people come up to me after seeing the ballet on stage and say, ‘Mr. Copland, when I see that ballet and when I hear your music I can just see the Appalachians and I just feel spring.’ Well, I’m willing if they are!”

In Appalachian Spring, Copland’s penchant for folk melodies and idioms reaches its zenith. The Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which Copland discovered in a 1940 book on Shaker culture, and the celebratory variations of its melody, form the climax of Appalachian Spring. When Copland arranged Appalachian Spring as an orchestral suite, he emphasized the song’s centrality by cutting several episodes from the ballet and changing the order of the variations. As scholar William Brooks notes, “In this context the Shaker melody came to serve as a kind of paradigm for the simplicity and authenticity of frontier America: mythical music for a mythical past.” In similar fashion Copland’s music, particularly Appalachian Spring, became the paradigm for the “American” sound of the mid-20th-century.

Copland explained his musical conception: “When I wrote Appalachian Spring, I was thinking primarily about Martha and her unique choreographic style, which I knew well.  Nobody else seems quite like Martha: she’s so proud, so very much herself.  And she’s unquestionably very American: there something prim and restrained, simple yet strong about her, which one tends to think of as American.”

Edwin Denby, a noted dance critic, provided program notes for the premiere of the Appalachian Spring orchestral suite in 1945: “A pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, that their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.”

Richard Wagner

Siegfried Idyll

 Composer: born May 22, 1813, Leipzig; died February 13, 1883, Venice

Work composed: 1870. Wagner wrote the Idyll as a birthday present for his wife Cosima.

World premiere: Wagner led a small ensemble of 13 musicians, who performed on the stairs outside Cosima’s bedroom.

Instrumentation: flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet and strings.

Estimated duration: 17 minutes

Unlike Richard Wagner’s heroic, larger-than-life music dramas, the Siegfried Idyll could be described as “Wagner unplugged;” scholar/critic Ernest Newman dubbed it “a series of domestic confidences.”

Written as a combined Christmas and birthday gift for Wagner’s wife Cosima, Wagner’s original title was “Tribschener Idyll, with Fidi’s Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting from Richard to Cosima.” (Tribschen was the Wagner’s home on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland; Fidi was the nickname of their 18-month-old son Siegfried). Wagner surprised Cosima with the Idyll, going to great lengths to keep his rehearsals secret. At dawn on December 25, 1870, Cosima awakened to a small ensemble of 13 musicians playing on the stairs and landing outside her bedroom.

The Idyll, a musical love poem, is tender and intimate, full of private references known only to Wagner and Cosima. Cosima’s reaction to it was so profound she could not articulate it. In her diary, she wrote:

“I can tell you nothing about this day, my children, nothing about my feelings, nothing about my mood, nothing, nothing. I shall merely inform you, plainly and simply, of what took place. A sound awoke me which grew ever stronger; I knew I was no longer dreaming, there was music, and what music! When it had died away, R. came into my room with the five children and gave me the score of his ‘Symphonic Birthday Greeting’ – I was in tears, so was everybody in the house. R. had placed his orchestra on the staircase, and thus our Tribschen is consecrated for all time.”

Most of the Idyll’s themes are found in the opera Siegfried. The first melody comes from Act III, but it actually originated in a string quartet Wagner wrote for Cosima six years earlier. Similarly, the German folk lullaby “Schlaf’, Kindchen, schlafe,” played by solo oboe, was assumed to refer to the Wagners’ baby Siegfried. However, Newman discovered it was actually linked to the Wagners’ older daughter Eva. These and other musical references, whose meaning remained unknown to the outside world for many years, reveal the Idyll’s personal significance to both Wagner and Cosima.

 Jacques Ibert


 Composer: born August 15, 1890, Paris; died February 5, 1962, Paris

Work composed: 1929-30

World premiere: November 30, 1930, at the Odéon in Paris

Instrumentation: flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, whistle, wood block, piano, celesta, and strings

Estimated duration: 16 minutes

“I want to be free – independent of the prejudices which arbitrarily divide the defenders of a certain tradition and the partisans of a certain avant-garde.” – Jacques Ibert

At age 29, after interrupting his musical studies to serve in World War I, Jacques Ibert won his nation’s highest compositional honor, the Prix de Rome. Before the war, while at the Paris Conservatoire, Ibert initially studied both drama and music before he chose to focus exclusively on composition. As a result, Ibert maintained a lifelong interest in drama and dance; in addition to his purely instrumental music, he wrote seven operas, five ballets, more than a dozen film scores, and a wide variety of music for the theatre.

In 1929, Ibert composed incidental music for the Paris production of Eugéne Labiche’s 1851 comedy, Un chapeau de paille d’Italie (The Italian Straw Hat). A year later, Ibert reworked the music into one of his most popular compositions, the Divertissement for orchestra. The score is a cleverly constructed pastiche of popular tunes of the day, jazzy riffs, and Viennese waltzes. In the Cortège, Ibert quotes the “Wedding March” from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while the Finale features a riotous can-can punctuated by blasts from a police whistle. The mischievous quality of the music perfectly captures the essence of the play’s ridiculously convoluted plot, which revolves, not surprisingly, around a lost straw hat.


© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz