Concert IV, 2023-2024 Season
Cityscape, Seascape, Soundscape
"Quiet City" was originally written in 1939 as incidental music for the stage play of the same name by Irwin Shaw. That version was a chamber piece for alto saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and piano. The play, involving the (bad) psychological effects on the protagonist of pretending not to be Jewish, was a flop. Copland took some of the themes from that and fashioned it into this mini-concerto for trumpet, English horn (an alto oboe), and strings. The composer himself remarked that this version took on a life of its own far beyond what would have happened if the play version had not had to be re-worked. In the original play, the trumpet represents the bittersweet memory of the protagonist’s brother playing that instrument; in this version the one-bit-after-another structure of the piece reminds us of its origins in incidental music, but the trumpet’s companionship with the English horn and the halo-like effect of much of the string writing, softens the melancholy of the original.
La Mer (1905) is the middle one of Debussy’s three great orchestral trilogies, the others being Nocturnes of 1897-99 and Images of 1905-12. Although these works are all of symphonic length, and each is divided into three separate movements, Debussy specifically did not call them symphonies, but rather gave them titles that connect them with extra-musical images and ideas. The three movements of La Mer are entitled "From Dawn to Midday on the Sea," "The Play of Waves," and "Dialogue Between the Wind and the Sea." The titles by themselves may suggest visual images, and Debussy is known especially to have admired the seascapes of British artist J. W. Turner for their "mystery" (Debussy’s word.) But Debussy himself as well as early commentators on the work were quite clear that La Mer was not intended to be simply a musical equivalent to a painting of the sea. Like many composers, he was suspicious of too-literal tone-painting, and admired Beethoven’s "Pastoral" Symphony for the way Beethoven had captured the "invisible sentiments" of nature rather than just imitating the physical waving of trees in the wind or the rustle of a brook.
In a 1908 interview with Emily Frances Bauer for Harper’s Weekly, Debussy said "I live in a world of imagination, which is set in motion by something suggested by my intimate surroundings rather than by outside influences, which distract me, and give me nothing." La Mer, then, while it may evoke pictures of the sea in various states in our minds, is also about our own possible responses to the sea, as well as (as several early commentators noted) the sea’s own sense of itself, or its "voice."
Insofar as one can find it, this "voice" is not carried by any one instrument or instrument group, or by any single melodic idea. Rather, it is embodied in the continual appearance and disappearance of flashes of instrumental "color," of incredibly brief shards of tunes that migrate from one instrument to another before you can really catch them, and of complex accompaniments that may evoke both the mysterious or threatening depths of the ocean and the welling of not-always-wanted feelings. High winds, brass, and low strings are often given the most easily graspable ideas. The last movement feels climactic partly because Debussy deploys the whole orchestra playing together at greater length than in earlier movements, but partly because he spins something like a tune out of the first identifiable motif of the whole work. He repeats this several times, at some length, so the listener feels that even though the wind and the waves may be endlessly at odds, together they constitute a magnificent and awe-inspiring natural phenomenon.
Symphony No. 7, in A major, Op. 92
Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies were written essentially at the same time, in 1811-12. The Seventh was premiered first, in 1813, on the same concert as Beethoven’s anti-Napoleonic "Wellington’s Victory." Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon notes that for early listeners this symphony was thus associated with hopes for peace after two occupations by Napoleon and years of the French-Austrian wars.
The immediate context aside, many early listeners to the symphony heard a festal character in it, some influenced by Wagner’s description of it as the "apotheosis of the dance." The skipping rhythms of the first movement, the slow march character of the second movement, and the wild revelry of the last one all contribute to this reading. At the same time, there is a kind of obsessive character to all the movements that darkens and complicates the festivities, and that links it to the famously darker Fifth and Third symphonies.
The first movement’s obsession is clearly the skipping rhythm: once the slow introduction is over, this rhythm is essentially never absent. There are several "teases" that lead us to think something more relaxed is going to occur, but other than a kind of becalmed passage close to the end, there is almost no relief from that basic rhythm
The second movement was incredibly popular in the nineteenth century, being arranged for all kinds of ensembles, played alone without the other movements, and even inserted into some performances of the Eighth symphony. It is just as obsessive as the first movement. The obvious fixation is the long-short-short rhythm of the opening, which pervades the movement. But there’s a more abstract fixation as well, which is the question of what counts as the tune. The opening idea seems like the main melody, even if a bit rudimentary. But when the violas play a longer-breathed lament at the same time as the opening idea, this gets "demoted" to an accompanimental role. The question of precedence—that is, of foreground vs. background—persists throughout the movement.
The third movement, or Scherzo, alternates a frantic chase with a much calmer rhythm that may remind us of a slowed-down version of the opening skipping rhythm. The last movement does not insist on a rhythmic gesture in quite the same way as the others, but it is obsessed with accents—and especially with whether they occur on the downbeat or the offbeat. That instability, combined with an often-repeated swirling gesture, creates a movement of almost terrifying intensity and fascination.
© Mary Hunter 2023