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Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Maurice Ravel

Le Tombeau de Couperin
Maurice Ravel
(b. Ciboure, France, 1875; d. Paris, 1937)

Composed in 1917 for piano; orchestrated in 1920.
Premiered on February 28, 1920 in Paris, conducted by Rhené-Baton.
Instrumentation: two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, harp and strings.
Duration: approximately 17 minutes.

Ravel was tormented by the First World War. He was accepted into the armed forces despite his small stature and delicate health, but his physical constitution was not robust enough to withstand the rigors of combat and he was quickly discharged for medical reasons. Soon after he arrived home, his beloved mother lapsed into her final illness, and the shock of her death nearly prostrated him. His own failed health, his mental anguish over the War, and the loss of his mother kept him from doing much creative work during World War I. Le Tombeau de Couperin is his only important work of those difficult years.

The inspiration for Le Tombeau came from two obsessions that filled Ravel's mind in 1917 — the sorrow caused by World War I and the need to retain the sanity represented by the tradition of French culture. In the piano suite that was the first version of Le Tombeau, each of the movements was dedicated to one of six friends of the composer who had fallen on the battlefield, a musical memorial to his countrymen and, perhaps, to his late mother as well. (He orchestrated four of them in 1920.) In a similar way, composers of the French Baroque age, François Couperin (1668-1733) among them, paid tribute in music to recently deceased colleagues. Such a piece was called a "tombeau," literally a "tomb," and Ravel intended such an association here. Beside just a way of eulogizing his comrades, however, the association with Couperin also represented for Ravel the continuity of the logic and refinement of French civilization. It was in this great Gallic tradition that Ravel sought intellectual and emotional shelter from crushing contemporary events. The title of Le Tombeau de Couperin, therefore, has a triple meaning: it is a memorial to family and close friends; it is a revival of some aspects of the musical style of the French Baroque; and, probably most significant for Ravel, it is a continuation of the venerable tradition of French culture and thought in a time of despair and nihilism.

Despite its heavy burden of associations, Le Tombeau de Couperin displays little of Ravel's distraught mental state, especially in its effervescent orchestral version. Rather than a roiling, emotional document, Le Tombeau is a vision of the refined and elegant world of Versailles shimmering in retrospect through the medium of the dance, its most characteristic social manifestation. The succulently atmospheric orchestration and rich harmony clearly mark the modern origin of the work, but its buoyant rhythms and crystalline structure show the influence of the music of Couperin's age. "This suite is a garland of musical flowers," wrote Donald N. Ferguson, "grown from 17th-century seed in a 20th-century hothouse."

The gossamer Prélude contains some dazzling passages for the woodwinds led by the oboe. The Forlane is based on a dance of Italian origin popular among the Venetian gondoliers before it crossed the Alps into France. The Menuet is the most durable of all Baroque dances. The Rigaudon is a vigorous duple-meter dance that originated in Provence.

 

Antonio Vivaldi

The Four Seasons, Opus 8, Nos. 1-4
Antonio Vivaldi

(b. Venice, 1678; d. Vienna, 1741)

Composed around 1720.
Instrumentation: strings.
Duration: approximately 40 minutes.

 

The Gazette d'Amsterdam of December 14, 1725 announced the issuance by the local publisher Michele Carlo Le Cène of a collection of twelve concertos for solo violin and orchestra by Antonio Vivaldi — Il Cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Inventione, or "The Contest between Harmony and Invention," Opus 8. The works were printed with a flowery dedication typical of the time to the Bohemian Count Wenzel von Morzin, a distant cousin of Haydn's patron before he came into the employ of the Esterházy family in 1761. On the title page, Vivaldi described himself as the "maestro in Italy" to the Count, though there is no record of his having held a formal position with him. Vivaldi probably met Morzin when he worked in Mantua from 1718 to 1720 for the Habsburg governor of that city, Prince Philipp of Hessen-Darmstadt, and apparently provided the Bohemian Count with an occasional composition on demand. (A bassoon concerto, RV 496, is headed with Morzin's name.)

Vivaldi claimed that Morzin had been enjoying the concertos of the 1725 Opus 8 set "for some years," implying earlier composition dates and a certain circulation of this music in manuscript copies, and hoped that their appearance in print would please his patron. The first four concertos, those depicting the seasons of the year, seem to have especially excited Morzin's admiration, so Vivaldi made specific the programmatic implications of the works by heading each of them with an anonymous sonnet, perhaps of his own devising, and then repeating the appropriate verses above the exact measures in the score which they had inspired. The Four Seasons pleased not only Count Morzin, but quickly became one of Vivaldi's most popular works. A pirated edition appeared in Paris within weeks of the Amsterdam publication, and by 1728, the concertos had become regular items on the programs of the Concert Spirituel in Paris. The Spring Concerto was adapted in 1755 as an unaccompanied flute solo by Jean Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher and dilettante composer who was attracted by the work's musical portrayal of Nature, and as a motet (!) by Michel Corrette to the text "Laudate Dominum de coelis" in 1765. Today, The Four Seasons remains Vivaldi's best-known work, and one of the most beloved compositions in the orchestral repertory.

Of Vivaldi's more than 400 concertos, only 28 have titles, many of them referring to the performer who first played the work or to the occasion for which it was written. Of the few composition titles with true programmatic significance, seven are found in the Opus 8 collection: The Four Seasons plus La Tempesta di Mare ("The Storm at Sea"), La Caccia ("The Hunt") and Il Piacere ("Pleasure"). Concerning the title of the Opus 8 set — "The Contest between Harmony and Invention" — Amelia Haygood wrote, " 'Harmony' represents the formal structure of the compositions; 'invention' the unhampered flow of the composer's creative imagination; and the 'contest' implies a dynamic balance between the two, which allows neither 'harmony' nor 'invention' to gain the upper hand. The perfect balance which results offers a richness in both areas: the outpouring of melody, the variety of instrumental color, the vivid musical imagery are all to be found within a formal framework which is elegant and solid."

Though specifically programmatic (Lawrence Gilman went so far as to call The Four Seasons "symphonic poems" and harbingers of Romanticism), the fast, outer movements of these works use the ritornello form usually found in Baroque concertos. The opening ritornello theme (Italian for "return"), depicting the general emotional mood of each fast movement, recurs to separate its various descriptive episodes, so that the music fulfills both the demands of creating a logical, abstract form and evoking vivid images from Nature. The slow, middle movements are lyrical, almost aria-like, in style. Though Vivaldi frequently utilized in these pieces the standard concertino, or solo group, of two violins and cello found in the 18th-century concerto grosso, The Four Seasons is truly a work for solo violin and orchestra, and much of the music's charm comes from the contrasting and interweaving of the soloist, concertino and accompanying orchestra. Of these evergreen concertos, Marc Pincherle, in his classic biography of Vivaldi, wrote, "Their breadth, their clearness of conception, the obvious pleasure with which the composer wrought them, the favorable reception which has been theirs from the first, their reverberations since then — all these unite to make them one of the masterpieces of the descriptive repertory."

For the publication of The Four Seasons in 1725, Vivaldi prefaced each of the concertos with an explanatory sonnet. These poems are given below with a note describing the music relating to the particular verses:

Spring, Opus 8, No. 1 (R. 269)

The spring has come, joyfully
(the vivacious opening section for full orchestra — the "ritornello" — that returns between episodes and at the end of the movement)
The birds welcome it with merry song
(trills and shakes, violins)
And the streams, in the gentle breezes, flow forth with sweet murmurs.
(undulating violin phrases)
Now the sky is draped in black,
Thunder and lightning announce a storm.
(tremolos and fast scales)
When the storm has passed, the little birds
Return to their harmonious songs.
(gently rising phrases and long trills in the violins)

And in the lovely meadow full of flowers,
To the gentle rustling of leaves and branches,
The goatherd sleeps, his faithful dog at his side. (Movement II)

To the rustic bagpipe's merry sound,
Nymphs and shepherds dance under the lovely sky
When spring appears in all its brilliance. (Movement III)

Summer, Opus 8, No. 2 (R. 315)

In the heat of the blazing summer sun,
Man and beast languish; the pine tree is scorched.
(the enervated "ritornello")
The cuckoo raises his voice
(wide, fast leaps in the solo violin)
Soon the turtledove and goldfinch join in the song.
(A solo violin episode with leaps and trills)
A gentle breeze blows
(quick triplets, violins)
But then the north wind battles with its neighbor
(rushing scales, full orchestra)
And the shepherd weeps
(expressive, chromatic theme for solo violin and continuo)
As above him the dreaded storm gathers, controlling his fate.
(forceful scales and figurations in the full orchestra)

His weary limbs are roused from rest
By his fear of the lightning and fierce thunder
And by the angry swarms of flies and hornets.
(Movement II, alternating  bittersweet plaints from the solo violin with quick, repeated note interjections by the full orchestra)

Alas, his fears are borne out
Thunder and lightning dominate the sky
Bending down the tops of trees and flattening the grain.
(the tempestuous third movement)

Autumn, Opus 8, No. 3 (R. 293)

The peasants celebrate with dance and song
The joy of a fine harvest
(the merry opening "ritornello")
And filled with Bacchus' liquor
(inebriated arpeggios, scales, trills and figurations from the solo violin alternating with the "ritornello" theme)
He ends his fun in sleep.
(progressively slower notes in the solo violin until the music stops completely before ending with the "ritornello" theme)

Everyone is made to leave off dancing and singing
The air is gentle and pleasing
And the season invites everyone
To enjoy a delightful sleep. (Movement II)

At dawn the hunters set out
With horns, guns and dogs.
(the bounding main theme)
The hunted animal flees, the hunters follow its tracks
(arpeggiated triplets in the solo violin)
Terrified and exhausted by the great noise
Of guns and dogs.
(violent, shaking figures in the orchestra)
Wounded, it tries feebly to escape,
But is caught and dies.
(flashing scales by the soloist cut short by the violent interjections of the orchestra)

Winter, Opus 8, No. 4 (R. 297)

Freezing and shivering in the icy darkness
(the chordal, almost motionless main theme)
In the severe gusts of a terrible wind
(rushing scales and chords in the solo violin)
Running and stamping one's feet constantly
(a brief, repeated note motive alternating with a leaping figure)
So chilled that one's teeth chatter.
(tremolo)

Spending quiet and happy days by the fire
While outside the rain pours everywhere. (Movement II)

Walking on the ice with slow steps
(the plaintive main theme, solo violin)
Walking carefully for fear of falling
(slow, steady chords in the orchestra)
Then stepping out boldly, and falling down.
(quick scales and then several brief descending flourishes)
Going out once again onto the ice, and running boldly
(steady motion up and down the scale in the solo violin)
Until the ice cracks and breaks,
(snapping, separated figures)
Hearing, as they burst forth from their iron gates, the Scirocco,
(a smooth melody in close-interval harmony)
The North Wind, and all the winds battling.
This is winter, but such joy it brings.
(rushing figurations close the work)

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

(b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)

Composed: 1788.
Instrumentation: flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings; Mozart added parts for two clarinets in a revision.
Duration: approximately 35 minutes.

"Music is the heart of God, and Mozart is His voice." So says the character of Antonio Salieri, the court composer to Austrian Emperor Joseph II, who is portrayed by Peter Shaffer in his brilliant (but misleading in its puerile characterization of the title character) play/movie Amadeus as being maniacally jealous of his young competitor. Shaffer, also known for the gripping drama Equus, spent two years in reading and research in an attempt to understand the life, works and personality of Mozart. As has everyone else, he came up against a solid wall of bafflement in trying to fathom this particular genius which has never known an equal in the entire history of music. The perfection of form coupled with the depth and purity of feeling heard in Mozart's compositions cannot be explained by any exercise of mere human logic. It surpasses our limited purview, and, lacking any other inkling of comprehension, one is forced to admit that Mozart's inspiration might, indeed, have been "divine." Shaffer-Salieri echoes the sentiments of George Bernard Shaw, who believed that Sarastro's arias in The Magic Flute were the only music fit to issue from the mouth of God.

At no time was the separation between Mozart's personal life and his transcendent music more apparent than in the summer of 1788, when, at the age of 32, he had only three years to live. His wife was ill and his own health was beginning to fail; his six-month-old daughter died on July 29th; Don Giovanni received a disappointing reception at its Viennese premiere on May 7th; he had small prospect of participating in any important concerts in the foreseeable future; and he was so impoverished and indebted that he would not answer a knock on the door for fear of finding a creditor there. Yet, amid all these difficulties, he produced, in less than two months, the three crowning jewels of his orchestral output, the Symphonies Nos. 39, 40 and 41.

The G minor alone of the last three symphonies may reflect the composer's distressed emotional state at the time of its composition. It is among those great works of Mozart that look forward to the passionately charged music of the 19th century while epitomizing the structural elegance of the waning Classical era. "It may be," wrote Eric Blom, "that the G minor Symphony is the work in which Classicism and Romanticism meet and where once and for all we see a perfect equilibrium between them, neither outweighing the other by the tiniest fraction. It is in this respect, at least, the perfect musical work."

The Symphony's pervading mood of tragic restlessness is established immediately at the outset by a simple, arpeggiated figure in the violas above which the violins play the agitated main theme. This melody is repeated with added woodwind chords to lead through a stormy transition to the second theme. After a moment of silence (a technique Mozart frequently used to emphasize important structural junctures), a contrasting, lyrical melody (in B-flat major) is shared by strings and winds. The respite from the movement's prevailing powerful energy provided by the dulcet second theme is brief, however, and the level of tension soon mounts again. The wondrous development section gives prominence to the fragmented main theme. The recapitulation returns the earlier themes in heightened settings.

The Andante, in sonata form (as are all the movements of Mozart's last six symphonies, save the minuets), uses rich chromatic harmonies and melodic half-steps to create a mood of brooding intensity and portentous asceticism. Much of the movement, especially the development, makes use of the repeated notes of the opening theme and the quick, fluttering figures of the second subject.

Because of its somber minor-key harmonies, powerful irregular phrasing and dense texture, the Minuet of the Symphony No. 40 was judged by Arturo Toscanini to be one of the most darkly tragic pieces ever written. The character of the Minuet is emphasized by its contrast with the central Trio, the only untroubled portion of the entire work.

The finale opens with a rocket theme that revives the insistent rhythmic energy of the first movement. The gentler second theme, with a full share of piquant chromatic inflections, slows the hurtling motion only briefly. The development section exhibits a contrapuntal ingenuity that few late 18th-century composers could match in technique, and none surpass in musicianship. A short but eloquent silence marks the beginning of the recapitulation, which maintains the Symphony's tragic mood to the closing page of the work.

The evaluation that the French musicologist F.J. Fétis wrote of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 remains as valid today as when it appeared in 1828: "Although Mozart has not used formidable orchestral forces in his G minor Symphony, none of the sweeping and massive effects one meets in a symphony of Beethoven, the invention which flames in this work, the accents of passion and energy that pervade and the melancholy color that dominates it result in one of the most beautiful manifestations of the human spirit."

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©2016 Dr. Richard E. Rodda