New Century Chamber Orchestra
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin
The Music Center at Strathmore
String Symphony No. 10
Mendelssohn was a prodigy whose gifts rivaled, perhaps even surpassed, those of the young Mozart. He began to compose at age ten, and many of these early works have survived. Under the direction of his teacher Carl Zelter, the boy wrote 13 symphonies for string orchestra between the years 1821-23, when he was 12 to 14. Because they were written for a teacher and Mendelssohn did not publish them, they have been referred to as apprentice works, but they certainly show an accomplished apprentice. Zelter had asked the boy to write on the models of Bach and Mozart, and while the influence of those two composers echoes through this music, the young composer is at many points willing to experiment with ideas of his own.
The String Symphony No. 10 in B minor was completed on May 18, 1823, three months after Mendelssohn’s 14th birthday. Its three interconnected movements have a curious structure: the young composer chooses to open with an Adagio, followed by a fast movement, which is in turn followed by an even faster movement. The writing for strings is polished by any standard, and for a 14-year-old it is phenomenal. The symphony opens with ominous chords–here and throughout, the minor tonality gives the music a dark character. The Allegro contrasts two sharply-defined themes: one abrupt and dotted, the other appealing in its easy lyricism. The development of these ideas is full of typically Mendelssohnian bustle, and the even more energetic Più Allegro is rounded off with a blistering coda.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Violin Concerto A minor
Bach spent the years 1717 to 1723 as kapellmeister in the service of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. The Cöthen court, located about 30 miles north of Leipzig, was strictly Calvinist and would not tolerate in its church services the organ music and cantatas Bach had written for the more liberal Weimar, where he had spent the previous nine years. But Prince Leopold himself was extremely enthusiastic about music–he played clavier, violin, and viola da gamba, and he was delighted to have Bach in his employment. So enthusiastic about music was Prince Leopold that he maintained a 17-piece orchestra, which he was happy to put at the composer’s disposal. Bach–who once said that music exists for two purposes: the glorification of God and the refreshment of the soul–spent six years refreshing his soul at Cöthen. From these years came the great part of his secular instrumental music, including the Brandenburg Concertos, the violin concertos, the sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, several of the orchestral suites, and Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The Concerto in A minor, one of Bach’s three surviving violin concertos, was probably composed about 1720. The opening movement is animated (though the movement lacks a tempo marking, it is clearly some form of Allegro): the upward leap of a fourth at the beginning recurs throughout, giving the movement its rhythmic energy and forward impulse. Against vigorous orchestral accompaniment, the solo violin enters in a more lyric voice on material derived directly from the orchestral exposition, and throughout the movement soloist and orchestra exchange and mutually extend this material.
The Andante belongs almost entirely to the solo violin: here the orchestra is limited to a bare ostinato accompaniment. But if the accompaniment is simple, the violin’s arching cantilena is ornate, unfolding in long, lyric lines high above the orchestra. This movement is the expressive center of the concerto, and–despite the C-major tonality–its tone is dark and intense.
Bach aims for brilliance in the final movement: his marking is Allego assai-–“Very fast”–-and its 9/8 meter and dancing energy give it some resemblance to the gigue. After a spirited orchestral introduction, the solo violin comes sailing into the orchestral texture. Bach’s evolution of the opening material is remarkable: as the orchestra hurtles brusquely along far below it, the violin seems to fly high, transforming this simple material into music of grace and beauty before rejoining the orchestra as the concerto drives to its vigorous close.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5
Throughout his prolific career, Heitor Villa-Lobos was pulled between two powerful musical forces. The first was the native music of Brazil. Villa-Lobos claimed that he had “learned music from a bird in the jungles of Brazil,” and the sounds of folk-tunes, native instruments, and Brazilian street dances echo through his series of Choros and many other works. The other force was the great tradition of European classical music, which pulled Villa-Lobos as irresistibly as had the song of that jungle bird: among his 2000 compositions are 12 symphonies, 17 string quartets, and numerous concertos and other formal works. At the heart of his love for “classical” music was his reverence for the works of J.S. Bach.
Villa-Lobos was able to fuse these passions in his series of Bachianas Brasileiras, nine quite different pieces written for various instrumental and vocal combinations between 1930 and 1945. Each piece shows the two influences on Villa-Lobos, combining Bach-like music (the opening movement titles come from the baroque: Prelude, Toccata, and so on) with movements based on Brazilian folk-songs and dances.
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, the most famous of the series, was written in two distinct sections: the opening movement dates from 1938, the second from 1945. This music is scored for an ensemble of eight cellos (the cello was Villa-Lobos’ own instrument) and a solo soprano, who is responsible for a sharply-varied vocal line. The Aria opens with pizzicato cellos, and over this strumming sound the soprano enters with her high, flowing melody, one of those haunting themes that–once heard–can never be forgotten. Her text is at first wordless–it is a vocalise–and this melody is soon picked up and repeated by a solo cello. But now comes a complete surprise: the soprano next sings a song in Portuguese by Ruth Valadares Corrêa about the beauties (and, strangely, the tensions) of the twilight. The opening movement is rounded off by a return of the opening wordless melody, but now the soprano hums it rather than singing.
In the Dança, the soprano sings another Portuguese poem, this one by Manoel Bandeira about Irere, the little bird from the wilderness. This is a vivid, lively song, with the soprano at some points imitating the sound of birdcalls. The haunting melody from the opening Aria returns to bring Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 to its close.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Few composers have been more apolitical than Richard Strauss. Born in the early years of Bismarck’s chancellorship, he lived through the consolidation of Germany, the rule of the two Kaiser Wilhelms, the First World War, the Weimar Republic, and even survived the Third Reich without much caring who ruled Germany. Strauss might have made it through his very long life without any real connection to the external events of his era had it not been for World War II. As that war progressed, Allied bombing began to obliterate many of the symbols of German culture Strauss held dear. Following an air-raid in October 1943 that destroyed the opera houses in Munich where he and Mozart had conducted, Strauss lamented to a friend: “the burning of the Munich Hoftheatre, the place consecrated to the first Tristan and Meistersinger performances, in which 73 years ago I heard Freischütz for the first time, where my good father sat for 49 years in the orchestra at first horn . . . this was the greatest catastrophe which has ever been brought into my life, for which there can be no consolation and in my old age, no hope.” In the stunned aftermath of that bombing, Strauss made a 24-measure sketch of music he tentatively titled Trauer um München (“Mourning for Munich”). Five months later, the firebombing of Dresden leveled a city he particularly loved, incinerating 80,000 people and the city’s cultural treasures. In a letter two weeks after that bombing, he agonized: “I too am in a mood of despair! The Goethehaus, the world’s greatest sanctuary, destroyed! My beautiful Dresden–Weimar–Munich, all gone!”
And it was this composer–80 years old, in declining health, and tormented by the annihilation of an entire way of life–who returned to his sketches of mourning and began to plan a new work for string orchestra. The impetus had come in a commission in July 1944 from conductor Paul Sacher, who was responsible for commissioning Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Divertimento, Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, and many other mainstays of the 20th-century string orchestra repertory. The actual composition of what became Metamorphosen took only one month: Strauss began the score on March 13, 1945, three weeks after the devastation of Dresden, and completed it on April 12, less than a month before the German surrender.
Metamorphosen is a remarkable work, scored for an unusual string orchestra of 23 solo players: ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three doublebasses. The full title can be misleading. Metamorphosen seems to imply a set of variations, which is not the case, and the subtitle A Study makes the work sound like an exercise in virtuosity, which it is not (though it is difficult enough for the performers!). Rather, this 25-minute composition gives expression to Strauss’ pain in the face of the annihilation of German culture. And what makes Metamorphosen all the more remarkable is that some of its thematic material seems to grow out of the heritage of German music. There are no direct quotations until the very end, but along the way listeners will sense what seem to be misty references to the music of Beethoven and Wagner.
A dark slow introduction for lower strings leads to the violas’ quiet statement of what will be the main subject: the four pulses and inflected descending line of this theme incorporate the theme Strauss had sketched in October 1943 for Trauer um München. Gradually the music grows more intense as Strauss introduces a number of subordinate theme-shapes, and while music for 23 parts can at times become complex, textures remain clear. Strauss reins back the tempo for the climax, which builds to a moment of sudden silence, and slowly the music winds down to its remarkable conclusion. On the final page, in the deep cellos and basses, Strauss quotes the main theme of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica, which he marks IN MEMORIAM! in the score. Only now do we recognize the close thematic similarity between Strauss’ main theme and Beethoven’s funeral music, and Strauss himself confessed that he had come to see the connection only in the course of composing this music. Beethoven’s theme merges into Strauss’ textures, and Metamorphosen’s painful lament fades into silence on a deep C-minor chord.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)