PROGRAM NOTES | Sun July 12, 2020 | 7:30 pm
Copyright Susan Halperin
(Born May 28, 1923, in Dicsőszentmárton, Transylvania, Hungary (now Târnăveni, Romania); died June 12, 2006, in Vienna, Austria)
Many only know Ligeti from the soundtracks of his music for some of Stanley Kubrick’s most famous movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, but his entire body of work includes some of the most original, idiosyncratic, and influential compositions to emerge from the second half of the 20th century.
Ligeti came from a musical family (his great uncle was the famed late 19th-century violinist Leopold Auer) in a Hungarian-speaking community in Romania; he moved with his family to Hungary when he was young child. He studied at the conservatories in Cluj and Budapest, but in 1943, his studies were interrupted when, as a Jew, he was sent into forced labor for the remainder of World War II. He resumed his studies after the war, and in 1950, joined the faculty of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. Ligeti escaped from Hungary immediately after the 1956 Revolution, eventually making his home in Austria where he took citizenship in 1967.
Ligeti composed Concert Românesc (Romanian Concerto for orchestra) in 1951; he revised it in the mid-1990s and published its new version in 1996. Ligeti had written the work for an army orchestra, but before the music was released to that group it had to be approved. During the rehearsal with the Hungarian Radio Orchestra in Budapest, the censors banned the work when they discovered a harmonically unusual passage that included a dissonance. Later in life, Ligeti reminisced about the musical attitudes and activities of the period in which he produced his Concert Românesc:
In 1949, when I was twenty-six, I learned how to transcribe folk songs from wax cylinders at the Folklore Institute in Bucharest. Many of these melodies stuck in my memory and led in 1951 to the composition of my Romanian Concerto [Concert Românesc]. However, not everything in it is genuinely Romanian as I also invented elements in the spirit of the village bands. I was later able to hear the piece at an orchestral rehearsal in Budapest—a public performance had been forbidden. Under Stalin’s dictatorship, even folk music was allowed only in a ‘politically correct’ form, in other words, if forced into a straitjacket of the norms of socialist realism. . . . The peculiar way in which village bands harmonized their music, often full of dissonances and ‘against the grain,’ was regarded as incorrect. In the fourth movement of my Romanian Concerto there is a passage in which an F-sharp is heard in the context of F major. This was reason enough for the apparatchiks responsible for the arts to ban the entire piece.
Music publisher Editio Musica Budapest re-created the score from the orchestral parts, but its edition had many errors, so the German firm Schott, which was by then publishing Ligeti’s music, issued a corrected version. Finally, the work had its official premiere on August 21, 1971, at the Peninsula Music Festival in the Gibraltar Auditorium, Fish Creek, Wisconsin, with Thor Johnson conducting The Festival Orchestra.
Its four movements, played without pause, are quite autobiographical. Ligeti wrote: “I grew up in a Hungarian-speaking environment in Transylvania. While the official language was Romanian, it was only in secondary school that I learned to speak the language that had seemed so mysterious to me as a child. I was three when I first encountered Romanian folk music, an alpenhorn player in the Carpathian Mountains. . .”. Even many years later, Ligeti remembered seeing local musicians wearing animal masks and playing “wild” music on the violin and bagpipes.
Concert Românesc belongs in the tradition of such works as Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsodies and Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, in the “symphonic-folk” tradition. It is generally tonal and diatonic and is one of the few works from that time that Ligeti did not put into the category of “juvenilia.”
In the mid-1990s Ligeti published a new version of Concert Românesc; in 2000, he described the background of the piece:
After spending some time in Romania in 1949/50, studying at the Folklore Institute in Bucharest, I participated in several trips to record partly Romanian, partly Hungarian folk music (in Covasint near Arad and in Inaktelke near Cluj in the region of Kalotaszeg). The present four-movement concerto for orchestra (with string and wind solos) is based on a large number of Romanian folk tunes recorded by me, most of which exist on wax cylinders and records of the Bucharest Folklore Institute. In Covasint, on the other hand, I got to know the common harmonic idioms of Romanian peasant music which I have used in the Concerto in a stylised form. This orchestral composition was one of the ‘camouflage pieces’, used to evade (1951) the imposed dictatorship in the field of arts. Though quite conforming to the rules, the piece nevertheless turned out to be ‘politically incorrect’ because of some forbidden dissonances (e.g. F sharp in B major). For today’s listener, it is hardly understandable that such minor tonal jokes were declared subversive. The ‘Romanian Concerto’ reflects my deep love of Romanian folk-music (and of Romanian-language culture absolute). The piece was banned at once and not performed until many decades later.
The work is based in part on the Romanian folk music Ligeti had studied at the Folklore Institute of Bucharest in 1949, and, in part, on his own invention in folk style “in the spirit of the village bands.” The first two movements are very different in character from the last two. The first two were adapted from the Ballad and Dance for two violins, which Ligeti had written the year before. Each section consists of a slow melody and then transforms into lively dance rhythms and orchestrations that evoke the sound of a village band. Here Ligeti engages the typical Hungarian folk form of the verbunkos, (an 18th century Hungarian dance) or csárdás (another folk dance) in which a stately lassú (slow section of a csárdás, a folk dance, often characterized by dotted rhythms) is followed a lively friss (the fast section of the csárdás, generally turbulent or jubilant with virtuosic running-note passages).
The Ballad became the Andantino first movement; it has a steady beat throughout, although individual measures constantly change their meter. This music is very much in the tradition of Kodály and Bartók’s folk settings. It opens with cello and clarinets playing the melodic, pastoral introduction, which creates a feeling of folk serenity.
The second movement, Allegro vivace, follows without a break; it has energetic dance rhythms in which piccolo, solo violin, and percussion instruments particularly stand out. The clarinets sustain a note through the final cadence of the orchestra.
The slow third movement, Adagio ma non tanto, is more complex and foreshadows Ligeti’s mature style yet hearkens back to his childhood memory of alpine horns which he heard in the Carpathian mountains. Ligeti instructs the horn players who play the opening material, one (positioned distantly) as an echo to the other, to use natural tuning which relies on the pure harmonic series not on the equal tempering of Western tradition, without using valves. These natural tunings sound intentionally flatter than what Western audiences are accustomed to hearing. Accompanying this melody, the strings create an ethereal-sounding background that continues below the English horn solo, foreshadowing Ligeti’s extensive use of these techniques in later compositions. Ligeti recalled: “The alpenhorn (called a bucium in Romanian) sounded completely different from ‘normal’ music. Today I know that this stems from the fact that the alpenhorn produces only the notes of its natural harmonic series and that the fifth and seventh harmonies (i.e., the major third and minor seventh) seem ‘out of tune’ because they sound lower than on the piano, for example. But it is this sense of ‘wrongness’ that is in fact what is ‘right’ about the instrument, as it represents the specific ‘charm’ of the horn timbre.”
The finale, Molto vivace, again seems akin to the music of Bartók, especially in the fast, Romanian-inspired dance finale. It starts with trumpet fanfares and is quite modern sounding with the strings producing an unusual buzzing sound, before a solo violin leads a dance, which becomes quite wild. The themes begin to overlap contrapuntally in a way Ligeti would use in later compositions against an oom-pah accompaniment. Ligeti’s biographer Richard Steinitz describes this section as “a sort of Keystone Cops meets Beijing Opera on the plains of Transylvania.” The solo violin continues on while the horns play their third movement theme before the work ends with a resounding chord from the full orchestra.
Concert Românesc is scored for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns (the third seated at a distance and functioning as an echo), two trumpets, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, small snare drum, bass drum, and strings.
Tzigane, Concert Rhapsody
(Born March 7, 1875, in Ciboure; died December 28, 1937, in Paris)
Ravel was the son of a distinguished engineer and inventor who in 1868 patented a self-propelled, steam-powered vehicle that ran for two hours in the streets of Paris. In the 1870s, when the composer’s father was working on railroad construction projects in Spain, Maurice Ravel was born on the French side of the frontier nearby, before the family returned to Paris a few months later. At the age of seven, Ravel began his musical studies; at eighteen, he began to write music, at twenty, he was already a published composer.
On a visit to London in 1922, Ravel became acquainted with the young Hungarian violinist, Yelli d’Araányi, who was Jenő Hubay’s student and a grandniece of Brahms’s violinist-friend, Joseph Joachim. After a concert one night, Ravel asked d’Arányi to play him a few Hungarian Gypsy tunes. He found them so fascinating that the two of them stayed up, playing and talking, until five o’clock in the morning. During the next two years while he worked on other things, Ravel gave a great deal of thought to composing a piece for d’Arányi. On March 13, 1924, he wrote her a letter in which he asked, “Would you have time to come to Paris in two or three weeks? I would like to speak to you about Tzigane, which I am writing especially for you, which will be dedicated to you . . .. This Tzigane must be a piece of great virtuosity. Certain passages can produce brilliant effects, provided that it is possible to perform them, which I am not always sure of.”
Ravel wrote Tzigane during a period of great activity. At the same time, he was working on his Violin Sonata and a sonata for violin and cello. He was also finishing the orchestration for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, as well as completing his opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges, with a libretto by Colette, which he had been working on for years.
Tzigane first appeared as a brilliant violin showpiece with piano accompaniment. Yelli d’Arányi premiered it at a concert in London on April 26, 1924, with Ravel playing the accompaniment on a piano with a luthéal attachment, which simulated the sound of the Hungarian cimbalom, an instrument resembling the old dulcimer. The results were not altogether satisfactory; he later adapted the music for conventional piano.
Tzigane is modeled not on the restrained formality of the Gypsy finale in the Violin Concerto that Brahms wrote for Joachim, but rather on Liszt’s free-form Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano. It begins as a long solo in improvisatory style, with glittering cascades of melody and fiery passages that conjure up the spirit of gypsy bands. Even though performers always find this virtuoso piece fiercely difficult to play, Ravel told d’Arányi after her successful first performance that if he had known how easily she would solve all the problems he set for her in this work, he would have made it even more difficult.
Hungarian Dances, Nos. 1 and 6
(Born May 7, 1833, in Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, in Vienna)
Eduard Reményi, a Hungarian violinist who had changed his name from the more prosaic Hoffman to help his career, arrived in Hamburg in 1853 as a political refugee from his native land. Immediately, he suggested to the young pianist, Johannes Brahms, that they make a concert tour together. In fact, they stayed together as a duo for only a few months, because Reményi quickly found Brahms overshadowed him, so he abruptly dissolved their partnership; however, in the course of their abbreviated tour, Reményi introduced Brahms to an exemplary Hungarian-born violinist, Joseph Joachim, who, in turn, introduced him to the great composer Robert Schumann. Schumann, Reményi, and Brahms became lifelong friends.
Reményi’s signature pieces were Hungarian Gypsy dances, and the young, impressionable Brahms was much impressed with them. Brahms displayed his love of this Gypsy music in the finales of several of his major works and also in the four books of twenty-one piano duets that he published as “settings,” not “compositions,” under the title Hungarian Dances. The first two sets appeared in 1869, the second two in 1880. Most are probably original compositions, which Brahms wrote as elaborations on familiar Hungarian and Gypsy melodies. He once referred to them as “real Puszta and Gypsy children; that is to say, I did not beget them but just gave them bread and milk,” by which he meant that he had not composed the actual melodies but had extrapolated on them in his four-hand piano versions. In the days of the Austrian Empire, they were known not as folk tunes, but as composed entertainment-music to be played in cafes, dance halls, and such gathering-places, just as current popular music is now.
The immense public appetite for these pieces was so great that they appeared in alternate versions for almost every imaginable combination of instruments. Joachim, who had become Brahms’s closest musical friend and was the violinist for whom he wrote his Violin Concerto, arranged them for violin. Brahms made piano solo versions of ten of the Hungarian Dances, and played them at his own recitals. Brahms orchestrated three of the Hungarian Dances himself, and his younger disciple, Antonín Dvořák, also arranged five of them for full symphony orchestra. The Anglo-Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti made a cello and piano arrangement of the entire series, and the great mezzo-soprano, Pauline Viardot, arranged two of them into a single Gypsy Song for two voices and piano.
No l in G minor, Allegro, is based on a csárdás, Isteni Csárdás, or “Sacred Csárdás,” by a composer named Pecsenyanski Sárközy.
No. 6 in D-flat Major, Vivace, is thought to be based on the song “Rosebush” by Adolph Nittinger.
Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), Op. 20
Pablo de Sarasate
(Born March 10, 1844, in Pamplona, Spain; died September 20, 1908, in Biarritz, France)
Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen is a medley of Hungarian Gypsy songs, six of them in suddenly contrasting fast and slow tempos in a dazzling virtuoso fashion. They are similar in kind to the Hungarian Rhapsodies that Franz Liszt based on the songs of the Gypsies of his country. This showpiece of Sarasate’s is usually known by the German title of its first edition, Zigeunerweisen, which means “Gypsy Airs”; it was published in 1878 in Leipzig. The piano here is almost completely a support for the soloist who is challenged to an extravagant technical display of harmonics, fast passagework, double stops, and left-handed pizzicati.
The three parts of the work include an introductory recitative-like section; a slow, haunting, lyrical central section based on a song by the Hungarian Elemér Szentirmai (1836-1908); and a bravura finale with a theme attributed to the Gypsy violinist János Bihari (1764-1827) that Liszt, too, used in his Hungarian Rhapsody No.13.
Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21 and Op. 61
(Born February 3, 1809, in Hamburg; died November 4, 1847, in Leipzig)
Felix Mendelssohn was an extraordinary child prodigy whose compositions were played at concerts by the time he was nine years old. Many of the important musicians of the time told his father, a wealthy banker, that the boy was a musical genius; the Mendelssohn family responded by doing everything possible to help advance his artistic development.
When the composer was a teenager, Shakespeare’s plays were becoming very popular in Germany in translations by a relative of the Mendelssohn family. Mendelssohn had no trouble understanding Shakespeare’s plays because he had the advantage of reading them in the modern German of his own time. In the summer of 1826, when he was seventeen years old, he and his sister Fanny spent many afternoons in the garden of their Berlin home reading Shakespeare aloud and sometimes acting out the roles. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a complicated fairy tale that is a rare combination of high poetic beauty and low comedy, especially captivated them.
In July and August, the young composer wrote a brilliant piece that is a perfect reflection of these qualities, which he called A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. In its first version, the work was a piano duet that he and Fanny played. In December he orchestrated it, and in February, the work had its premiere at a symphonic concert.
Young Mendelssohn dedicated the Overture to the Crown Prince of Prussia. It is an astounding invention for a composer of any age, seventeen or seventy. It magically conjures up Shakespeare’s fairyland in an apparently episodic piece that is rich in melody and in musical “events.” Among them are high-pitched opening chords, then a running figure like the beating of fairy wings. After that, there is a sequence of tunes or fragments of melody among which only the hee-haw of Bottom, the Ass, is obviously associated with a person or character in the play.
In 1843, when the Prince had become King William IV, he asked Mendelssohn to write incidental music to be played during a theatrical performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the theater of his new palace. For the composer, the first performance of the work, which he conducted on October 14 of that year, was not a happy experience. The royal guests insisted on long intermissions, which they turned into noisy social gatherings, completely destroying the atmosphere Mendelssohn had intended his music to create in the theater.
One of the great marvels of Mendelssohn’s genius is the perfect match, in style and spirit, of the Overture he wrote when he was seventeen and the Incidental Music he composed for the play when he was exactly twice that age. The match that the Incidental Music makes to the Overture springs not only from the way that Mendelssohn mined his own Overture for ideas, but also in the subtle relationships he created between its elements and the play itself. Asked by his publishers, the composer recalled how he had written A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It is impossible for me to outline. . . the sequence of ideas that gave rise to the composition. . .. It follows the play closely, however, so that it may be very proper to indicate the outstanding situations of the drama in order that the audience may have Shakespeare in mind or form an idea of the piece. I think it should be enough to point out that the fairy rulers, Oberon and Titania, appear throughout the play with all their people . . .. At the end, after everything has been settled satisfactorily and the principal players have joyfully left the stage, the elves follow them, bless the house and disappear with the dawn. So the play ends . . ..”
Mendelssohn composed music not only for the Shakespearean songs in the play, but also for substantial entr’actes and long stretches of background music and dances, marches, and fanfares. There are twelve numbers in all, in addition to the Overture. The lively Scherzo with its spirited flute solo is a delightful portrait of Puck, who first appears soon after the beginning of Act II. It, the first fairy scene, is written in loose sonata form, with much the same character of impishness that the Overture has, except that here the woodwinds begin the thematic statement, and the strings initiate the second thematic exposition. The next section is “Over the hill, over the Dale,” followed by the March of the Fairies in which Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, come on stage to light and airy music. The fourth section, a song with chorus, “You Spotted Snakes with Double Tongue,” is, perhaps surprisingly, a lullaby. In Act II, Scene 2, Titania lies down in the woods and asks her attendants to sing her to sleep. They guard her rest with this song, followed by the slow, “What thou see’st when thou dost wake” and the Allegro, “Help me Lysander, help me!”
When Oberon and Puck cast spells to make Titania fall in love with the grotesque Bottom and end Lysander’s love for Hermia, it is accompanied by the passionate Intermezzo, “On the ground sleep sound.” The following Nocturne is heard as an interlude between Acts III and IV. The four young lovers, their relationships confused by fairy magic, fall asleep in the woods. Puck pours a magic potion on Lysander’s eyes that is instrumental in bringing the couples together again. Oberon then releases his Queen from her enchanted dream. This section has distinctive solo passages for the French horns, enriched by the addition of the bassoons and the clarinets. The famous Wedding March, which begins with a processional, introduces Act V and the celebration of the triple wedding of Hermia to Lysander, Helena to Demetrius, and Hippolyta to Theseus.
The Fanfare and Funeral March, played by a handful of instruments, is the incidental music for the rustic clowns’ play-within-the-play. The Dance of the Clowns is music for the Bergomasque danced by Quince, Bottom, and their companions after their performance of the comedy Pyramus and Thisbe for the Duke and his palace guests in Act V. The music is based on the donkey “hee-haw” that was first heard in the Overture.
The Finale, with music that begins and ends like the Overture, accompanies the short scene in which the fairies come to bestow their blessings on the newly married couples. Mendelssohn assigns Oberon’s words to the women’s chorus and Titania’s to a solo voice.