Marin Alsop, the famed Conductor Laureate and former Music Director for your Colorado Symphony, returns leading a riveting program of illustrious works. Copland’s signature American sound is on full display in this beautiful suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring, while Barber’s Second Essay exhibits exhilarating power throughout. Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet provides a stirring conclusion to Maestra Alsop’s return.
Repertoire & Program Notes
BARBER Essay No. 2, Op. 17
COPLAND Suite from Appalachian Spring
PROKOFIEV Suite from Romeo and Juliet
Notes on the Program by Dr. Richard E. Rodda:
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) | Essay No. 2, Op. 17
Samuel Barber was born on March 9, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania and died on January 23, 1981 in New York City. The Essay No. 2 was composed in 1942 and premiered by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic on April 16th of that year. The score calls 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. Duration is about 10 minutes.
Literature and music have long had close associations, especially in the musical settings of poetry and in the opera house. Early in the 19th century, however, some compositions without sung text began to reflect the extra-musical world of the written word, and program music based on literary works became an important 19th-century genre. Beethoven’s powerful, stormy Coriolan Overture was inspired by the play of Joseph von Collin; Liszt penned more than a dozen tone poems for orchestra, most based on literary subjects; Strauss glossed Nietzsche in Also sprach Zarathustra. This Romantic tradition carried over to the works of one of the masters of American 20th-century music — Samuel Barber. Barber was a sensitive, cultured and discriminating reader of the best literature throughout his life, and he translated several of his favorite writings into music. His catalog shows compositions inspired by Matthew Arnold, Shelley, James Agee, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and A.E. Housman. It was with the Overture to “The School for Scandal” of 1932 (“suggested by Sheridan’s comedy,” as the composer noted in the published score) that his musical style crystallized. Barber’s reputation was solidified when Toscanini gave the premieres of the bardic Adagio for Strings and the Essay No. 1 with the NBC Symphony in 1938, the first American works performed by that conductor and orchestra.
An “essay,” according to The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, is “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytical, speculative, or interpretative.” With the Essay No. 1 for Orchestra of 1937, Barber created a musical counterpart of the literary genre — a compact, single-movement, tightly reasoned work of reflective quality and considerable expressive substance. He returned to the form with the Second Essay, written when Bruno Walter requested from him a new piece that could be performed at the conductor’s concerts with the New York Philharmonic in 1942. (The Third Essay of 1978 was among Barber’s last compositions.)
Barber produced the Second Essay at a time when his style was turning toward greater harmonic tension and more probing expression. The work is built from three themes. The first, an open-interval melody that is at once heroic and nostalgic, is given immediately by solo flute and repeated by bass clarinet. The timpani introduces the second theme, built around a small skip played in quick rhythms. Elements of both the earlier motives are transmuted in the wide-ranging third theme, initiated by violas and carried forward by the solo oboe. After a simultaneous development of the themes, the woodwinds begin a fugue based on the timpani’s motive. The entire ensemble is eventually drawn into the thematic discussion, whose climax is achieved by weaving together all three themes. The music quiets, and the timpani hints again, softly, at its theme before a coda of broad and noble sentiment draws to a close this work of superb craftsmanship and stirring emotion.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) | Suite from Appalachian Spring
Aaron Copland was born on November 14, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York and died on December 2, 1990 in North Tarrytown, New York. Appalachian Spring was composed for a chamber orchestra of thirteen instruments in 1943-1944 for Martha Graham; it was revised as a suite for full orchestra in 1945. The ballet was premiered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. on October 30, 1944; Louis Horst conducted. The first performance of the orchestral suite was given on October 4, 1945 by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Artur Rodzinski. The score calls for woodwinds, horns, trumpets and trombones in pairs, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, and strings. Duration is about 24 minutes.
Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, one of America’s greatest patrons of the arts, went to see a dance recital by Martha Graham in 1942. So taken with the genius of the dancer-choreographer was Mrs. Coolidge that she offered to have three ballets specially composed for her. Miss Graham chose as composers of the music Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, and an American whose work she had admired for over a decade — Aaron Copland. In 1931, Miss Graham had staged Copland’s Piano Variations as the ballet Dithyramb, and she was eager to have another dance piece from him, especially in view of his recent successes with Billy the Kid and Rodeo. She devised a scenario based on her memories of her grandmother’s farm in turn-of-the-20th-century Pennsylvania, and it proved to be a perfect match for the direct, quintessentially American style that Copland espoused in those years. Edwin Denby’s description of the ballet’s action from his review of the New York premiere in May 1945 was reprinted in the published score:
“[The ballet concerns] a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the 19th century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end, the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.”
The premiere of Appalachian Spring (Miss Graham borrowed the title from a poem by Hart Crane, though the content of the poem has no relation to the stage work) was given on October 30, 1944 (in honor of Mrs. Coolidge’s 80th birthday) in the auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where the limited space in the theater allowed Copland to use a chamber orchestra of only thirteen instruments (flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, and nine strings). The performance was repeated in New York in May to great acclaim, and garnered the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the New York Music Critics Circle Award as the outstanding theatrical work of the 1944-1945 season. Soon after its New York premiere, Copland revised the score as a suite in eight continuous sections for full orchestra by eliminating about eight minutes of music in which, he said, “the interest is primarily choreographic.”
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) | Suite from Romeo and Juliet
Sergei Prokofiev was born on April 23, 1891 in Sontzovka, Russia and died on March 5, 1953 in Moscow. His ballet Romeo and Juliet dates from 1935. It was premiered in Brno, Czechoslovakia in December 1938. The ballet score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, cornet, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, harp, piano, and strings. Duration is about 40 minutes.
When Prokofiev returned to Russia in 1933 after his long sojourn in the West, he had already acquired a reputation as a composer of ballet. His first balletic effort had been the volcanic Ala and Lolly written for Diaghilev in Paris in 1914, whose music is better known in its concert form as the Scythian Suite. Though Diaghilev did not like the piece and refused to stage it, he remained convinced of Prokofiev’s talent and commissioned Chout (“The Buffoon”) from him in 1921 and produced it with his Ballet Russe. Le Pas d’acier (“The Steel Step”) followed in 1927 and The Prodigal Son in 1928, the last new ballet Diaghilev produced before his death the following year. Sur le Borysthène (“On the Dnieper”) was staged, unsuccessfully, by the Paris Opéra in 1932. The last two of these works showed a move away from the spiky musical language of Prokofiev’s earlier years toward a simpler, more lyrical style, and the Kirov Theater in Leningrad took them as evidence in 1934 that he should be commissioned to compose a full-length, three-act ballet on one of the theater’s classic stories of romance — Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Prokofiev was immediately taken with the Leningrad Kirov’s proposal for a Romeo and Juliet ballet, and spent much time during the spring of 1935 with the company’s stage director, Sergei Radlov, working out a detailed scenario. Enough of the music was composed during the summer at Prokofiev’s secluded house in Polenovo, near Tarusa, that he could write to a friend in late July, “Juliet is already tripping through the third act.” For reasons never made clear (had the outspoken Prokofiev tread on some sensitive political toe?), the Kirov withdrew its offer to produce the ballet, and a contract with the Moscow Bolshoi was arranged instead. A tryout of the music was given in the Beethoven Hall of the Bolshoi Theater in October, but failed to ignite enthusiasm for its balletic potential. “Undanceable,” declared some. V.V. Konin, in a dispatch to the Musical Courier, criticized “the awkward incongruity between the realistic idiom of the musical language, which successfully characterizes the individualism of the Shakespearean images, and the blind submission to the worst traditions of the old form.” This last comment referred to the “happy ending” of the original scenario, in which Romeo and Juliet survive to join in the finale. (“Dead people don’t dance,” reasoned Prokofiev.) Whatever its motive, the Bolshoi broke its contract to stage the ballet, so Prokofiev turned to the expedient of extracting music from the complete score for concert performance. Two orchestral suites were assembled and heard in Russia and the United States before the complete ballet was premiered, in Brno, Czechoslovakia in December 1938, a production in which the composer took no part. A third orchestral suite dates from 1944.
At about the time of the Brno performance, Prokofiev met the choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky. Lavrovsky, building on the reputation the Romeo and Juliet music had acquired in its concert performances, finally convinced the Leningrad Kirov to stage the work. The production was carefully prepared, with choreography by Lavrovsky, designs by Piotr Williams, and with Galina Ulanova and Konstantin Sergeyev in the title roles. A satisfactory way was found to restore the tragic close of the original play. Prokofiev composed some new music for this and other scenes, and reorchestrated several episodes so that they were more clearly audible to the dancers. Romeo and Juliet triumphed, and has since become one of the most popular of all full-length ballets.
Montagues and Capulets incorporates, as slow introduction, the music accompanying the Duke as he forbids further fights between the families on pain of death, the heavy-footed Dance of the Capulet Knights from the Act I ballroom scene, and a graceful transformation of the Knights’ theme to portray Juliet. Scene depicts the morning awakening of city’s streets. The bright Morning Dance follows. Young Juliet characterizes the several moods of the heroine, not yet fourteen years old. The swaggering/cautious Masks depicts the arrival in masks and costumes of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio at the ball in the house of their enemy. The ecclesiastical music depicting Friar Laurence occurs as the friendly monk and Romeo await Juliet in the cleric’s cell. Death of Tybalt is based on the music accompanying the duel of Tybalt and Mercutio, Tybalt’s death, and his funeral procession. Bridesmaids circle quietly around the sleeping Juliet in Dance of the Antilles Girls. The Aubade (“morning music”) occurs after Juliet has drunk the potion and fallen asleep. Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb is taken from the ballet’s final scene — Juliet’s funeral procession and Romeo’s grief at her presumed death. The Death of Juliet is the touching music that closes the ballet.
©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Marin Alsop, conductor
Preludes & Talkbacks
Preludes take place at 6:30 p.m. (FRI & SAT) and 12 p.m. (SUN) in Boettcher Concert Hall. This weekend's Preludes are hosted by Assistant Principal Viola Catherine Beeson. Catherine will bring you the history of women on the conductor's podium.
There will be a Talkback on Saturday, March 21, 2020.
Transportation & Parking
Boettcher Concert Hall is at the southwest end of the Denver Performing Arts Complex (DPAC) located at 14th and Curtis Streets in downtown Denver. It's easy to find and there are two large parking garages available within walking distance: the DPAC Garage and the Colorado Convention Center Garage. Please arrive early to ensure ease of parking and an on-time arrival. With numerous other events happening at the DPAC all the time, parking fills up quickly. Late arrivals will be seated during the first available break. We strongly encourage alternate forms of transportation.
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