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2013–2014: Masters in Miniature

Unfinished Business

Just as diamonds expose their brilliant mineral composition through multiple facets, so great composers in their shorter works display their genius in an economy of space. The four miniature masterpieces the orchestra plays for you today demonstrate this phenomenon, reflecting at the same time the gamut of human emotions.

Adrienne Albert is an American composer living and working in Santa Monica, California. The child of European-trained professional violinists, she began studying the piano at age four and composition at age ten. She had the good fortune to have excellent teachers and graduated from UCLA with a degree in music performance and education.

Albert’s first professional foray into music was as a mezzo-soprano soloist. She enjoyed a long working relationship with Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky among others in this capacity. Then, after a career performing other people’s music in New York City, she returned to Los Angeles to devote her talents to composition.

Over the last twenty years, Albert has published a symphony and numerous chamber works, but perhaps Courage, which she composed in 2000, is the most remarkable of all her pieces. Commissioned by Ivan Shulman and the Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra, Courage was the outgrowth of her personal battle with breast cancer. It is a bold, powerful work, rhythmic and melodic with an underlying snare drum military-like heartbeat as the opening melody from the brass is taken over by the woodwinds and then the strings. In her description of the piece, Albert suggests that “Courage speaks the strength in all of us to overcome adversity in our lives.”

In his short lifespan of less than 32 years, the Austrian composer Franz Peter Schubert produced some 600 songs, ten complete or nearly complete symphonies, liturgical music, operas, incidental music, and a large body of chamber and solo piano works. The son of a schoolmaster, he showed an extraordinary childhood aptitude for music, studying the piano, violin, organ, singing, and harmony, and, while a chorister in the imperial court chapel, composition with Antonio Salieri. By 1814 Schubert had written piano pieces, string quartets, his first symphony, and a three-act opera.

As compositions continued to flow from his pen, including Der Wanderer and Die Forelle as well as his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Schubert acquired aristocratic patronage and the companionship of friends who provided him with an appreciative audience and influential contacts. In late 1822, however, he contracted a serious illness, most certainly syphilis. Despite this troubling setback, he continued to produce remarkably creative works including the exquisite Die Schöne Müllerin song cycle and the passionate, two-movement Eighth Symphony (“Unfinished”).

Why Schubert failed to finish the Eighth Symphony continues to puzzle musicologists. What is known is that in 1823 the Graz Music Society gave Shubert an honorary diploma, and he felt obligated to dedicate a symphony to it in return. It was to fulfill this resolution that he sent to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a leading member of the Society, an orchestral score he had written the year before which consisted of two completed movements and at least the first two pages of the start of a scherzo. The fact that Hüttenbrenner neither arranged for the work to be performed nor alerted the Society that he had received the manuscript only deepens the mystery. It was not until 1865, long after Schubert’s death, that he revealed the symphony to the conductor Johann von Herbeck. Herbeck performed it for the first time on December 17 of that year in Vienna where the audience received it with great enthusiasm.

Unfinished or not, Symphony No. 8 in B Minor is sometimes regarded as the first Romantic symphony due to its emphasis on expressive melody, vivid harmony, and creative combinations of orchestral tone color despite the imposing Classical sonata-form structures of its two completed segments. The first movement, Allegro moderato, begins with a full-fledged melodic statement. Yet the song soon turns into drama when the second theme is suddenly interrupted by a measure of silence, followed by a few moments of orchestral turbulence after which the previous idyll is restored only temporarily and then with some difficulty.

The second movement, Andante con moto, is in E major. Here Schubert combines a peaceful and ethereal melody with another, more majestic theme featuring trumpets, trombones and timpani. A second melody is introduced in the new key of C-sharp minor, again with a dramatic extension. These sharp contrasts in mood persist until the end of the movement, where the “peaceful and ethereal” E major is finally re-established after an exacting tonal journey through a number of distant keys.

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer whose works included symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and a choral setting of the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Some of these are among the most popular theatrical music in the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, which he bolstered with appearances as a guest conductor later in his career in Europe and the United States.

The son of a mining inspector, Tchaikovsky was educated for a career as a civil servant, but being musically precocious, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 21 where he studied composition with Anton Rubinstein. He graduated in 1865 and taught theory and composition at the Moscow Conservatory from 1865 to1878. An annuity from a wealthy patroness made it possible for him to devote himself entirely to composition, and his work sustained him throughout his continuous battle to come to terms with his homosexuality and to deny the spreading rumors of it. Before he died of cholera at age 53, Tchaikovsky had produced some towering works including his last three symphonies, the Piano Concerto in B-Flat Minor, and three ballets: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

For a composer as immersed in lyricism as Tchaikovsky, it is surprising that he wrote so little music featuring the violin, although he did make magnificent use of it in his orchestral scores. He created just four solo works including the Violin Concerto in D Major written in 1878, which quickly established itself as an audience favorite. Less well known but equally affecting is the Sérénade Mélancolique in B-flat minor for violin and orchestra.

Tchaikovsky was greatly impressed by “the great expressivity, the thoughtful finesse and poetry of the interpretation” of the playing of the Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer whom he heard perform in 1874, and the first we know of the work was in Tchaikovsky’s letter to his brother Modest dated February 13, 1875 where he wrote: “I have finished my Piano Concerto, and have already written a violin piece I have promised to Auer.” It was not Auer, however, who first played this work. Violinist Adolph Brodsky, who would later premiere the Violin Concerto, gave the first performance of the Sérénade in Moscow on January 28, 1876.

Tchaikovsky’s title catches the character of this music perfectly which is written in the key of B-flat minor and is both lyrical and melancholy. A very brief introduction leads to the solo violin’s statement of the main theme, a dark melody of Slavic character. Tchaikovsky extends this theme through a series of varied repetitions. The music grows more animated in its central section, which requires some agile double-stopping from the performer, and then falls away to close quietly on its opening material.

In a personal note, soloist Sarah Briggs adds that the Sérénade Mélancolique has been frequently recorded and can be found on the concert program of every great violin soloist. She studied the piece at the Eastman School of Music with her Russian violin professor, Zvi Zeitlin who died in 2012. Her performance today is dedicated to Zeitlin’s memory and to that of her father who died in March 2013.

Morton Gould was an American child prodigy with abilities at musical improvisation. In fact his first composition was published at the remarkable age of six. As a young man he studied at the Institute of Musical Art in New York City and played piano in movie theaters as well as with vaudeville acts. By 1935 he was conducting and arranging orchestral programs for New York’s WOR radio station, where he reached a national audience via the Mutual Broadcasting System by blending popular programming with classical music.

Gould composed scores for Broadway shows, films and ballets, and his music was commissioned by symphony orchestras all over the United States. His ability to combine seamlessly multiple musical genres into formal classical structures while maintaining their distinctive elements was unsurpassed. He conducted all of the major American orchestras as well as those of Canada, Mexico, Europe, Japan, and Australia. In 1986 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Gould’s Latin-American Symphonette, composed in 1933, is one of a large number of his works that illustrate how effective well-crafted examples of “light” concert music can be. The four-movement Symphonette is based on four Latin American and Caribbean dance rhythms: rhumba, tango, guaracha, and conga. Taken together, they approximate the scope of a Classical-era symphony and, indeed, exhibit a like clarity of form and melody. Not surprisingly, Gould makes colorful use of a variety of Latin percussion instruments. Throughout the Symphonette is characterized by memorable and finely crafted tunes and lively rhythms; the slow movement provides a change of mood with a gentle nocturnal song, and the work draws to a close with a pulse-pounding finale.

— Jane Rausch

Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.

Holyoke Community College

Adrienne Albert: Courage
Schubert: Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished”
Tchaikovsky: Sérenade Mélancolique

  • Sarah Briggs, violin

Morton Gould: Latin-American Symphonette



iTunes: Schubert, Tchaikovsky

Past Concerts

With Our Thanks for Their Support:

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This program is supported in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council; the Holyoke Cultural Council, and the South Hadley Cultural Council, both of which are supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency.

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