program notes: las musas

wallen: are you worried about the rising costs of funerals? 

Born in Belize, Errollyn Wallen (1958- ) moved to London, England, with her parents and siblings at the age of two. When her parents moved to New York, the children were raised by an aunt and uncle living in England. Growing up, she took lessons in dance, and her uncle sparked her interest in music through piano lessons.

Following graduation from boarding school, Wallen spent about two years (1976-78) training at the Dance Theater of Harlem (New York), but then returned to England, now thoroughly dedicated to music composition and performance. Studying in London at Goldsmiths and then at King’s College London, she earned a Master’s Degree from Kings College, Cambridge in 1983. Wallen now lives and composes in a lighthouse on the coast of Scotland.

In her career as a composer, Wallen has received numerous commissions and honors. A few top honors were Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2007 and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2020. She is one of the top 20 most performed living composers of classical music in the world. A very versatile and productive composer, Wallen has written nine chamber operas and a variety of other vocal music, a large and varied repertoire of chamber music, and numerous orchestral works, notably her most recent: Concerto Grosso, premiered in 2022 by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, John Butt, conducting.

Philip Headlam conducted the premiere recording of Are You Worried . . . on Avie Records. For that CD he also wrote the following insightful description of this song cycle:

turína: las musas de andalucia, op. 93

Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) was born in Seville. His early studies were there and in Madrid. Following his predecessors, Isaac Albèniz and Manuel de Falla, Turína moved to Paris in 1905, where he studied with d’Indy. He became a friend of Debussy and Ravel. While in France, Turina, Albéniz, and Falla resolved to become nationalist composers writing in a Spanish style. After the outbreak of WW I in 1914, Turina returned to Madrid. His early career there included conducting for the Ballets Russes and at the Teatro Real.

In the early months of 1929, Turina visited Havana, Cuba, where he gave a series of lectures at the Hispanic Institute of Culture. Two years later he was made Professor of Composition at the Madrid Conservatory. During the 1920s and ’30s, Turina frequently spent time in Catalonia and Barcelona, where he absorbed the Catalán culture and composed music that paid tribute to it.

Turina was most prolific in the field of chamber music, which led to performances at the piano with the likes of Pablo Casals. Several of his chamber works are based on some model or idea. Las Muses de Andalucia is an example. Combining the idea of the nine Ancient Greek Muses with musical idioms from his native Andalucia, Turina was able to create a work containing a panoply of musical colors, musical effects, and unique forms.

Las Muses de Andalucia was composed for one soprano voice, piano, and string quartet. Each movement was composed for a different instrumental combination or solo. This variety of musical colors and textures produces varied effects. The nine movements are:

  1. Clío 
  2. Euterpe 
  3. Talía 
  4. Polimnia 
  5. Melpómene
  6. Erato 
  7. Urania 
  8. Terpsícore 
  9. Calíope 

faure: la bonne chanson

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) came from a family of minor aristocrats and educators in the South of France.  As a child, he showed musical talent early, and his parents sent him to study in Paris. Initially, he studied church music. However, in 1861, he began to study the piano with Camille Saint-Saëns. This very popular composer introduced young Gabriel to the music of contemporary composers, which made a deep impression on him and his compositional style. 

Throughout his early professional life, Fauré’s main source of income was as a church organist. At the same time, his recognition as a composer grew steadily, and in 1896 he was appointed professor at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1905 he became its Director. However, his fame arrived late, and in concert life, he is still underrated. Historians consider him the greatest French composer between Berlioz and Debussy and one of the greatest song composers in history.

Proof of that claim can be found in his famous song cycle, La Bonne Chanson, (“The Good Song”). For this work, Fauré chose poems by Paul Verlaine, who had in mind his wife, to whom he was deeply devoted. Fauré composed most of La Bonne Chanson during the summers of 1892 and 1893, times when he was having a serious romantic affair with his vacation neighbor, singer Emma Bardac (later, Claude Debussy’s second wife). She would sing songs for the composer as he finished them. The song cycle was finally completed in February 1894. When published, La Bonne Chanson’s dedication was (naturally) to Emma Bardac.

Biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux has commented: 

“Fauré’s passion for Emma Bardac not only disrupted the even, bourgeois tenor of his life but, unusually for him, had the effect of completely reorienting his compositional activity. . . . He cast off from the moorings of what was reasonable, what “sounded well,” and at a stroke achieved the sovereign liberty that marks the great creative artist.”

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved. 

program notes: 1918-1939: Breaking away

Janáček: Podhádka (“Fairy Tale”)

In 1910, both Igor Stravinsky and Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) made musical settings of Russian folk tales. Stravinsky’s famous Firebird ballet for full orchestra was quite literal and became world famous. Janáček’s Fairy Tale, a more general setting for cello and piano, went relatively unnoticed. This statement is not to take away from the mastery and charm of Janáček’s music, but rather to contrast two opposing approaches to similar material. The full title of Janáček’s work was originally “The Tale of Czar Berendey.” When the composer revised the work in 1923, he shortened the title simply to Fairy Tale.

Briefly, the story goes that Czar Berendey is duped into ransoming the soul of his son, Ivan, to Kashchey, Ruler of the Underworld. When Ivan is old enough, his father tells him of his terrible fate, whereupon Ivan sets out, determined to free himself of the curse. Early in his odyssey, he sees a duckling turned into a beautiful maiden, and they instantly fall in love. She turns out to be Marya, the good daughter of Kashchey. In later episodes, Ivan (with Marya’s help) successfully accomplishes two tasks set for him by Kashchey, but Marya is changed into a flower. Ultimately, the couple are rejoined in a happy ending.

In the Fairy Tale, the cello part represents Ivan while the piano speaks for Marya. These symbols are immediately apparent in the first movement, as a fanfare-like cello pizzicato punctuates the gently curving main theme. A canon (imitation) between the instruments perhaps symbolizes the betrothal of the couple. Soon, however, this tender stroking turns into a gallop, possibly signifying Kashchey’s pursuit of the lovers.

Another piano-cello canonic dialogue opens the second movement, but this spiky theme is answered by a more lyrical variant. The fanfare motive from the first movement returns along with other music heard previously.

The most “Russian” sounding part of the Fairy Tale is the main theme of the final movement. One striking feature that occurs in every movement is a sort of “dissolution” at the end, rather than a solid recapitulation and conclusion. As biographer Jaroslav Vogel points out, this “. . . heightens the fairy-tale atmosphere, and the charm is enhanced by Janacek’s ability to enter completely into the spirit of the old Russian epic tales.”

Tailleferre: String Quartet

In 1917, World World War I was still raging throughout Europe, A group of six composers gathered frequently in Paris to discuss progressive aesthetic theory and practice. Included were Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Talleferre. 

The progressive-minded Talleferre (1892-1983) was the only female member of Les Six, and here rebellious nature preceded her there. Born with the family name of Taillefesse, she changed it to Tailleferre to spite her father, who refused to support her musical studies. She took piano lessons with her mother, and began to compose short original pieces. These led to her studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where she met the young composers who, with her, would soon constitute Les Six. Her early relationship with them soon led to her association with the artistic crowds in the districts of Montmartre and Montparnasse. There the idea of Les Six was born, unified by their faith in writer Jean Cocteau’s published ideas.

During the 1920s, Tailleferre wrote many of her most important compositions, and she remained reasonably prolific throughout her long life. In addition to the concert hall, she composed several film scores, music or the radio and television, and incidental music for the theater. Her music for piano solo and concertos was especially profuse.

Talleferre composed her only string quartet during 1917-1919 at the height of her involvement with Les Six. She was a student of Milhaud at the time. The conciseness of each movement suggests that the work may have originated as a composition assignment or a competition entry.

 The quartet opens with a movement marked Modéré. A short theme is passed around between instruments. Then another, led by the Second Violin receives similar treatment. Led by the First Violin a cascading idea now becomes the focus, and this leads to a short coda (or, wrapping up) of the first movement.

Marked Interméde, the second movement opens in a playful, puckish mood. By contrast, the central section is smooth and closely concentrated on two or three short musical ideas. A variant recap of the first section rounds out the intermediate movement.

A somewhat ferocious mood, marked Très ritmé greets us at the opening of the finale. Then, sudden quietness prevails while the players explore the lower regions of their instruments. This congeals into a surprising solo by the first violin. Shifting into a tremulous pattern, the opening music returns, now transformed in mood and texture. A brief transition leads to a recapitulation of the opening material, which soon dissolves into freer expression and a new section of the movement. Then, taking on a veneer of heroism (Un peu plus lent), the music slips slowly into a hushed ending.

Bloch: Piano Quintet No. 1

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was a composer of Swiss origin. His studies and early musical career centered in his native city, Geneva. In 1916, he traveled to the United States as the conductor of a Swiss dance company. When the company suddenly went bankrupt, Bloch was stranded without friends or financial resources. Within a short time, however, he had begun a new career here, at first teaching at the Mannes School of Music, then becoming Director of the Cleveland Institute and later the San Francisco Conservatory. 

Most of the music Bloch composed during the 1920s could be termed “neoclassic” That is, music written in Classical Period forms, or music adhering to formal principles (such as balance and proportion) found in Classical Period composers, notably, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. At the same time, Bloch’s own musical style became intensely personal, and consistently so. He completed his Piano Quintet No. 1in 1923.

Tension and drama inform the opening minutes of Bloch’s quintet. In part, this can be attributed to the contrast between the piano’s music and the music for strings. The piano then begins a new “bed” of sound for individual and pairs of strings to etch brief musical statements. This whole passage is a transition to a new theme group, again contrasting piano and strings. Melodies and accompaniments are freely exchanged between strings and piano. These textures are somewhat simplified as the music reaches the epitome of its development. The music becomes declamatory again (as in the opening music), finally tumbling to the conclusion of the movement.

Marked Andante mistico, the central movement begins with the piano offering low-pitched support for sustained fragments of melody exchanged among the strings. This texture now dominates for a substantial period of time until the lower registers of the piano join in the melodic interchange. Strings soon dominate again, offering attractive melodies and duets above the rumbling piano. The whole quintet gradually become more rhapsodic leading to a new section marked misterioso. Former melody fragments return, now supported by steadily rocking rhythms in the piano. Gradually, all the players gel into a rocking rhythm until a climactic moment, when the ensemble gradually re-assembles in an intense quasi-pastoral setting. Again winding down, the music arrives at a restatement of earlier, quieter music. This gradually recedes to a sustained, soft finish.

Allegro energetico reads the tempo marking for the finale. The dance impulse is undeniable, yet the “dancers” seem to stumble often. All this makes for an entertaining movement full of surprises. Mostly unpredictable, the music draws the listener close, waiting for the next surprise. Occasional long-breathed string melodies are stretched across a percussive texture, but they never reach a stable conclusion. Viola and cello struggle to create a melody with   some continuity, and soon the other strings join them. Finally, we hear galloping rhythms accompanying the fragmented melody, now shared with the piano. A great variety of rhythms inform the next pages of this movement, ushering in reminiscences of slower, earlier ideas and melodies. A sizeable and even slower, long-breathed melody leads to a quiet, high-pitched ending to the Quintet.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved.