by Jane Rausch
Author William Falukner once remarked, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This observation is surely true in music, for composers frequently draw upon elements of their earlier works or those of others to create new masterpieces. “Echoes of the Past,” the theme of our concert today, reflects the different ways that the past intrudes on more contemporary music. The most explicit example, of course, is Lauren Bernofsky’s Ode to a Forgotten Past. A more subtle evocation is Henry Cowell’s Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3, first performed by HCS on November 24, 1968 during the orchestra’s second season 49 years ago. Gioachino Rossini relied on an earlier composition to create the overture to The Barber of Seville, while Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto is firmly rooted in the traditions and styles of older composers.
Until perhaps the middle of the 19th century, Gioacchino Rossini was the world’s favorite opera composer. Having tutored himself on Mozart’s operatic models, Rossini’s own exceptional standards for operatic writing then in turn inspired others including Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner. Yet within this long tradition of opera geniuses, Rossini is undeniably the finest composer of the genre called opera buffa – operas rich in light-hearted antics and singable tunes.
Many a viewer of Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville, first performed in Bologna in 1816, has marveled at how brilliantly its overture sets the mood for the opera itself. In point of fact, the composer had written the overture three years previously (when he was only 21) for a very different opera, Aureliano, and then used it for a second time in 1813 for a melodramatic piece, Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra – both now long forgotten. When his original overture to The Barber of Seville was lost shortly after the premiere, Rossini, well supplied with an old chest filled with musical snippets, full operas, and manuscripts, reputedly rummaged about in his chest and borrowed his earlier opera’s overture to use for the Barber. Thus, it is not surprising that the overture we have come to know as an introduction to The Barber of Seville does not include a single theme from the opera proper.
It is difficult to believe that an overture originally composed for tragic operas could function so perfectly as the introduction to a comic tale, yet it does, and – on the stage or in the concert hall – this music continues to work its charm. It begins with a slow introduction marked Andante maestoso, which features crashing chords, gathering energy, and a beautifully-poised melody for violins. The music rushes ahead at the Allegro con brio, with its famous “laughing” main theme, full of point and expectancy. A solo oboe introduces the second theme-group, marked dolce, and this alternates with the main violin theme. Along the way are several of the lengthy crescendos that were a virtual Rossini trademark (his nickname was “Monsieur Crescendo”), and one of these drives this sparking music home in a great blast of energy.
Lauren Bernofsky holds a master’s degree in composition from the New England Conservatory and a doctorate in composition from Boston University, where her mentor was Lucas Foss. She is a former faculty member of the Peabody Institute and is currently the Music Director of the Musical Arts Youth Organization (MAYO) in Bloomington, Indiana. Bernofsky has written over 100 works including solo, chamber, and choral music, as well as larger-scale pieces for orchestra, film, musicals, opera, and ballet. Critics have described her music as “delightful,” and destined to “become standard repertoire.” As she strives to capture the unique expressive potential of each instrument, her philosophy of composition is simple: music should be a joy both to play and to hear.
The HCS commissioned her Ode to a Forgotten Past, which it premiered at its spring concert, May 7, 2000. Bernofsky describes the work as a tone poem for orchestra. The name loosely refers to the tradition of tonal classical music that had been consciously avoided by many 20th century composers who strove for a complete break with the past. Like the passacaglia, a musical form dating back to the Baroque period, the bass line plays an important role in this piece; it is first heard prominently in the lower strings more as a melody, and it then becomes a bass line underlying the main theme. The harmonic language can be described as tonal/modal.
Henry Dixon Cowell was an American composer, music theorist, pianist, teacher, publisher, and impresario. He was born in California and raised by his leftist parents who encouraged him to study violin and piano, even after the 1906 earthquake left the family impoverished and living a nomadic existence. Extremely well-read, Cowell’s interest in music of the Pacific Rim resulted in an oeuvre which John Cage called “occidental and oriental at one and the same time.” Cowell was a passionate advocate of new music, and upon achieving attention for his piano compositions, shocked the world with techniques which included laying his forearms on the keys and striking the strings. He had a prodigious intellect but also a social impulse and generous idealism. He lived to share his music.
Between 1943 and 1964 Cowell composed a series of eighteen Hymn and Fuguing Tunes based on American folk music. About his third Hymn and Fuguing Tune, he explained: “This Hymn is a sustained piece in the Dorian mode and was borrowed from southern revival meetings rather than New England anthems. It adopts the dance rhythms that have been taken over by the big singing gatherings in the south. It is a modern development of the southern Fuguing Style in which popular minstrel show rhythms and tunes were turned to religious purposes in revival meetings. The general effect, I hope, is one of good nature and enthusiasm. The tunes are of course my own, but both tunes and treatment were suggested by the music of the singing schools. I have tried to develop them in ways suitable to the modern orchestra without abandoning their essential characters.”
Johannes Brahms composed his Violin Concerto in D major in 1878. It was first performed on January 1 in Leipzig with Brahms as conductor, and his close friend, Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, as soloist. Few composers from the Romantic Era felt the weight of the great German musical tradition as heavily as Brahms, and his violin concerto in many respects follows that of Beethoven for the same instrument. Among other points, both concertos share the same key, and their first movements are equally long and have similarly serene main themes. Beethoven did not write a first-movement cadenza and neither did Brahms. The second movements of both works are very slow and begin with simple chordal orchestral instructions, and the finales also share a similarly rustic dance-like atmosphere.
Joachim’s influence was undoubtedly as important as that of Beethoven. He and Brahms had become instant friends when they met in May 1853 in their early twenties. Since Joachim was already the most brilliant and promising violinist of the era, it was simply a matter of time before Brahms would offer to write a concerto for him. Not being a violinist himself, he turned to his friend for technical advice about the solo part. Joachim was an eager collaborator, tirelessly helping Brahms fine-tune many of the virtuosic passages so that they would be more effective and at the same time fall more comfortably under the hand. The final result was a staggeringly difficult but ultimately very effective work.
It is important to note that this is not a piece wherein the orchestra serves as mere backdrop for a stunning display of virtuosic fireworks. Rather the violinist and orchestra are a team collaborating and interacting to recount an elegant and nuanced musical drama. This duality has not always won approval of music critics. Numerous musicians, noting the demanding technical aspects of the piece, have been credited with remarking that the work is “a concerto not so much for the violin as against the violin,” and countless others have referred to it as “unplayable.” Pablo de Sarasate, another 19th century violin virtuoso refused to perform the piece, saying “I don’t want to stand there, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe playing the only melody in the adagio.” This caveat aside, the concerto is nevertheless recognized as one of the four great German violin concerti – the others composed by Beethoven, Max Bruch, and Mendelssohn.
The first movement, Allegro non troppo, is in sonata form. The orchestra begins the piece with an extended exposition of melodic material, after which the violin finally enters, accompanied by timpani and cellos. The orchestra takes up fragments of the new theme introduced by the violin, and they continue to trade material back and forth throughout the rest of the movement. Noteworthy is the improvised cadenza, since the Brahms violin concerto was the last major concerto to ask the soloist to create his/her own cadenza which, of course, Joachim was quite prepared to do.
The second movement, Adagio, is led, not by the violin, but (as previously noted) by the oboe. The violin eventually enters, providing a lyrical and ornamented commentary on the melodic material. There is a brief turbulent storm before returning to the gentle lyricism of the opening.
In the third movement, Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace, Brahms gives the violinist an opportunity to present an energetic rondo with more than a Hungarian sounding hint about it. With its rhythmic complexity and abundance of double-stops, the movement presents enormous technical demands on the soloist. Numerous melodies enter and attempt to shift the mood, but the dance-like melody wins out, concluding the work in a gesture of ebullient joy.