About the Artists/Music
Essay for Orchestra No. 2, Opus 17
– Samuel Barber
Born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania
Died January 23, 1981, in New York, New York
This work was premiered on April 16, 1942, at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Bruno Walter. It is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.
In 1924, at the age of 14, Samuel Barber entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. This was hardly the beginning of his musical studies, as his aunt, the great Metropolitan Opera contralto Louise Homer, had encouraged him in his childhood to study a wide variety of music. At just 7 years old, Barber composed an operetta, entitled The Rose Tree. Although his father wanted him to become a physician, young Samuel became proficient on piano and developed a serviceable singing voice. When he entered the Curtis Institute, he caught the attention of the school’s founder, Mary Curtis Bok, who became his patron and managed his early career.
In 1935, Barber won the Rome Prize and spent two years in Cadegliano, Italy, with his friend and fellow composer, Gian Carlo Menotti. Summers there allowed Barber to escape the tensions of his studies and a city that he felt was musically confining. He spent a large portion of his time swimming, bicycling, shopping, playing tennis, and composing, which came much more readily to him when combined with leisure activities.
With his career well underway, due largely to Artur Rodzinski’s performance of his Symphony No.1 at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, Barber tried to cement his reputation by finding notable conductors to introduce his newest works. Arturo Toscanini, the esteemed maestro who had premiered Puccini’s final operas, was in Salzburg during the Festival. Barber sent scores of his Essay for Orchestra (he would compose a second such work in 1942) and Adagio for Strings (Barber’s own arrangement of the slow movement from his String Quartet) to Toscanini, knowing that a premiere under the baton of the legendary conductor would bode well for his career. Within six months, Toscanini sent the scores back with no explanation. Assuming that the maestro was not interested in the pieces, Barber begrudgingly began a search for another conductor. On vacation with Menotti in 1938, the two discussed visiting Toscanini at his island home in Lake Maggiore, but Barber could not bring himself to visit the man who had refused his music. Little did he realize that Toscanini had memorized both scores and would premiere them before the year ended. Barber’s close association with Toscanini brought him recognition as one of the leading young composers of his generation.
Barber’s Essay No. 2 is a tightly constructed composition akin to its literary namesake. The work opens with a sweeping theme in the flute and other woodwinds supported by a menacing low brass accompaniment. Barber’s second theme unfolds and expands, but the intruding timpani represent the ominous dark clouds of war. After a quick fugal section, the composer combines earlier themes before culminating the piece in a glorious and stately coda.
©2016 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin
Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra in C minor, Op.18
– Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born April 1, 1873, in Oneg, Russia
Died March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California
This work was first performed on October 27, 1901, by the Philharmonic Society of Moscow with Alexander Siloti conducting and the composer as soloist. It is scored for solo piano, woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.
Sergei Rachmaninoff once told his editor that he did not know which was his “true calling – that of a composer, pianist, or conductor . . . I am constantly troubled by the misgiving that, in venturing into too many fields, I may have failed to make the best use of my life.” He composed in nearly every musical genre, but it is primarily because of his works for piano that audiences know him today. Rachmaninoff developed a personal idiom of keyboard writing, patterned somewhat after Chopin and Liszt, but strongly individual and drawn from his own tendencies as a pianist. One particularly effective aspect of his music is his infallible ability to create surging and poignant melodies along with captivating orchestral textures.
Of Rachmaninoff’s four concertos for piano and orchestra, the second has become the most popular. This beloved work is characterized by its rich beauty, as well as great technical brilliance and difficulty. However, it was a particularly difficult work for Rachmaninoff, who suffered from writer’s block. His Symphony No.1 (1897) was a complete failure. Despite his great potential as the most promising leader of a new generation of Russian composers, the harsh reception could not have been more brutal. Cesar Cui declared that the work sounded like the product of “a conservatory in Hell.” The depression that ensued caused an unusually dry period in Rachmaninoff’s compositional output. After three years, friends convinced the composer to seek help from Dr. Nicolai Dahl, who had used alternative therapies with his patients. The composer received considerable relief after four months of hypnosis and was so grateful to Dr. Dahl that he dedicated the Second Piano Concerto to him.
The opening “moderato” begins with soft chords played by the piano even before the main theme enters in the strings. Supporting the sweeping melody, the soloist begins a pattern of wide arpeggios. The broad melody continues for some time, growing in passion and giving way to an unaccompanied section for the soloist. A yearning second theme is introduced by the soloist while the orchestra interjects an occasional fragment of supporting material. Rachmaninoff’s sultry development section begins with a major-key proclamation of the first theme, finally giving way to a new march-like melody, growing in intensity until the recapitulation.
Brooding and moody, the “adagio sostenuto” commences with soft chords in the orchestra, which usher in the darkly stunning piano solo. A contrasting middle section presents a tumultuous surge in emotion. Listeners might note that the expressive theme that opens the movement was adapted into a popular song entitled “All By Myself.”
Rachmaninoff’s lively finale, marked “allegro scherzando,” opens with a rhythmic pianissimo entrance. Piano arpeggios navigate through treacherous territory as the movement winds up to a fiery pace. After the usual development and recapitulation filled with surprises around every corner, the movement ends with a showcase of dazzling pianism punctuated with a final triumphant hammering of orchestra chords.
©2016 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88
– Antonin Dvořák
Born September 8, 1841 in Nelahozeves, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904 in Prague, Czech Republic
This work was first performed on February 2, 1890, in Prague with the composer conducting. It is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.
Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, unlike his other compositions at the time, was not published by the powerful firm of Simrock. His friend and inspiration, Johannes Brahms, had introduced him to the firm, a real aid to a young composer with a career to make. But, as that career progressed, Dvořák became dissatisfied with his monetary returns. Simrock paid Brahms 40,000 marks for his Fourth Symphony. But Simrock would offer Dvořák only 3,000 marks for his Sixth Symphony. While Dvořák did not put himself in the class of Brahms musically or financially, he did think he should get at least 6,000 marks for the new work. When, after the London premiere, he informed Simrock that the symphony “had an exceptionally brilliant success,” he was making a pointed reminder to the publisher. The London public and critics literally raved over the work. Some listeners compared it favorably with the great Schubert C Major Symphony. Others rated it above the symphonies of Brahms. These judgments impressed Simrock and when Dvořák insisted upon his 6,000 marks, he finally got them.
This was only one of a number of conflicts between Dvořák and Simrock. For a time the composer abandoned the firm entirely for another publisher, Novello, and ignored Simrock’s protests that their contract of 1879 was still valid. At the root of this conflict – which is interesting today because of the aesthetic argument at its root – was Simrock’s insistence that Dvořák’s larger works earned them little money. They wanted him to turn out more songs and piano pieces. “I shall simply do what God imparts me to do,” Dvořák replied, and calmly went about his composing. By the time Novello had published the brilliant Eighth Symphony and the greatly admired Requiem, Simrock had learned his lesson. Thereafter, the German firm published everything from Dvořák’s pen, including two symphonies that emerged posthumously.
Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, his penultimate work with that designation, is in four movements, as is usually the case, but shows considerable experimentation regarding its internal musical forms. Opening with a brisk tempo of “allegro con brio,” this G major work’s first melody is actually in the parallel key of G minor. According to standard sonata form found almost universally in opening movements of the day, the first theme should be in the key of the work as a whole – in this case, G major. Dvořák shattered tradition. After all, such a dichotomy of major and minor was probably not so extreme to an Eastern European composer, since the same procedure is common in folk music from Dvořák’s Czech homeland.
The second movement, marked “adagio,” finds its drama in an unstable harmonic palette. A vivid pastoral view of Czech peasant life, it is filled with bird calls and even includes an imitation of a village band. Dvořák’s dance movement, “allegretto grazioso,” is hardly a scherzo, but is more in the character a starodávny, a waltz-like Lachian peasant dance at a moderate tempo. A major-key trio adds an unexpectedly sunny moment to the proceedings.
Beginning with a grand fanfare, the “allegro ma non troppo” finale is a set of variations on a theme first heard in the cellos. Although it must be considered a sonata form, Dvořák throws another wrench into the works by adding a central march that is completely unrelated to the form. After this diversion, the cello theme and fanfare melody receive a reworking in the development section. The powerful recapitulation gives way to a section in which Dvořák reverses the variation process by simplifying the theme until it reaches a near-barren form. Fast and energetic material then leads to a frenzied coda that ends the symphony with a flourish.
©2016 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin