Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
(arranged by Glenn Gould)
The iconoclastic Canadian pianist Glenn Gould prepared three Richard Wagner transcriptions— Siegfried Idyll, “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Götterdämmerung, and the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg—for a 1973 Columbia Masterworks recording. “You know, I’ve always sort of sat down at night and played Wagner for myself, because I’m a total Wagnerite—hopelessly addicted to the later things especially—and I thought it would be fun to make my own transcriptions.” Gould contrasted his process of transcription with typical Romantic practice: “I have been taking a few of the later bits and pieces of Herr Richard Wagner and transcribing them for the piano. And not as usual 19th-century manner, which was for the most part, very literal and exact. I have been very unliteral and very inexact. And I like the sound of it.”
Wagner composed the Prelude to Die Meistersinger even before completing his libretto. Typically, he wrote the overture or prelude last, after finishing the main music. This majestic orchestral procession into the grand hall incorporated melodies from the forthcoming drama. A ceremonious march theme ushered in the line of mastersingers. Lyrical contrast arose from the unconventional melody (i.e., not conforming to strict mastersinger rules) from Walther von Stolzing’s song-competition entry. Wagner later restated his processional march with solemn brilliance and dignity.
Gould—the acclaimed though controversial interpreter of Bach’s keyboard music—relished the challenge of Wagner’s contrapuntal textures. Mere transcription of notes failed to satisfy Gould, who undertook the reconstruction of Wagner’s material according to a fictional model for piano: “I deliberately dispensed with all textural scruples and tried to imagine what might have been if someone with both orchestral and pianistic flair—Scriabin, let’s say—had a hand in it.”
Sonata in A Major, Op. 4 (“ Große Sonate ”)
The town of Leipzig—where Johann Sebastian Bach had served as Kantor at the St. Thomas School and Church and municipal music director— also witnessed the birth of Richard Wagner to local actuary Carl Friedrich Wagner and his wife Johanna, the mistress of Prince Constantin of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and, in all probability, of the actor and painter Ludwig Geyer, who is Richard’s suspected biological father. The young Wagner excelled only in school subjects that interested him, such as poetry, history and Greek mythology. Gambling, drinking, brawling, attractive young women and revolutionary activities proved far more intriguing. He changed residence often, moving among Leipzig, Dresden and Prague. Intermittent studies at the Nikolaischule and Thomasschule did have one beneficial effect: they unlocked Wagner’s interests in composition.
Wagner eventually undertook intensive studies in counterpoint and composition with Christian Theodor Weinlig, the current Kantor at St. Thomas School and Church, beginning in the fall of 1831. Although formal instruction lasted only six months, Wagner learned a great deal from Weinlig, an influential figure in Leipzig whose students included Clara Wieck Schumann. He dedicated his first mature Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 1 (1831) to Weinlig, who had required it as a compositional exercise “constructed on the most insipid harmonic and thematic principles, as a model for which he [Weinlig] recommended one of the most childlike sonatas of Pleyel,” Wagner later recounted in Mein Leben.
The compositional model changed considerably with Wagner’s Piano Sonata in A Major, Op. 4, written a few months later in early 1832. Beethoven looms over the musical structure, keyboard figuration, harmonic progressions and grandiose dimensions of this “Große Sonate”—Wagner’s original title. The loud dramatic opening gesture followed by extended tremolos beneath a crescendo represent a small-scale version of the opening effect in Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata. Other stylistic influences, such as Mozart and (pace Wagner) Pleyel, intermingle with patent Beethovenian writing. The solemn brooding Adagio molto e assai espressivo conjures further associations with the master, particularly the slow movements of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata or, even more closely, the Piano Sonata No. 21 in A-flat Major, Op. 110. Bold chords interspersed with cadenza-like flourishes (and, originally, a full-fledged Tempo moderato e maestoso fugue, which Wagner crossed out in his autograph score) segue into the bustling Allegro molto finale.
Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61
By the summer of 1845, Chopin’s relationship with the Baroness Aurore Dudevant, the French poet and playwright known by the pen name George Sand, had begun to show signs of deterioration. The self-centered demands of Sand’s two pampered children, Maurice and Solange, had created a rift between Sand and the composer. Chopin created few new works during this tumultuous period. Each of these compositions is characterized by refined harmonic and melodic writing and innovative formal structures. In a letter written to his family in December 1845, Chopin summarized his compositional projects: “My new mazurkas [Op. 59] have been published by Stern in Berlin, so I don’t know whether they will reach you, since in Warsaw you usually receive your music from Leipzig. They are not dedicated to anyone. Now I should like to finish the cello sonata [Op. 65], the ‘barcarolle’ and something else which I haven’t found a title for, but I doubt whether I shall have time, now that the rush is beginning.” The untitled work, completed in the following year, was the Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61. Its published score was dedicated to Mme. A. Veyret, a mutual acquaintance of Chopin and Sand.
Classification of the Polonaise-fantaisie proved difficult for Chopin. This singlemovement work opens with an improvisatory, prelude-like introduction. The main music that follows is not properly a polonaise—a processional Polish dance in 3/4 time—because the characteristic rhythm is not present throughout. Also, there is an unusual slow section midway through this piece. A number of related themes freely flow together in the manner of a fantasy.
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-97)
Six Piano Pieces Op. 118
When Robert Schumann wrote his 1853 article “New Paths” in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, he proclaimed the young Johannes Brahms the new genius of German music. At the time of the article, Brahms was attracting attention as a pianist in recitals throughout Europe with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Hoffmann, known as Ede Reményi. Many of Brahms’s compositions for the piano come from these years of growing renown. Not only did he compose numerous sets of variations, three sonatas, ballades and dances for the solo piano, but he also wrote for chamber combinations that included the piano. When Brahms left his native Hamburg for Vienna in 1862, his interest in solo piano composition shifted from the variation and dances to freer, more improvisatory pieces; nearly all the solo piano works are entitled capriccios, intermezzos, rhapsodies or fantasies. These works come from widely separated dates during his 35 years in Vienna: there were two sets of piano pieces from 1878- 1879 and four sets from 1892-1893.
Among the last group of solo piano compositions were the Six Piano Pieces Op. 118. Brahms completed work on the set in 1893 at his summer residence at Ischl. It is possible that he had sketched some of the pieces earlier. The collection was published later that year by Simrock. Four pieces are entitled Intermezzo—a slower, lyrical type. The third piece is a narrative Ballade, and the fifth is a lyrical Romanze. Hungarian pianist Ilona Eibenschütz gave the first performance on January 22, 1894, in London at St. James Hall.
Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S. 514
The legend of Faust, the man who sold his soul to the cynical, mocking, demonic Mephistopheles, excited the 19th-century imagination. Virtuoso artists were believed to have given their souls to the devil in exchange for their exceptional abilities. Such was the mystique that surrounded Liszt. Even after taking minor orders in the Catholic Church, he was still described as “Mephistopheles disguised as an abbé.”
Liszt’s compositions exhibit a similar affinity to the Faustian model, as several of his works have their roots in the legend. In addition to the “Faust” Symphony, based on Goethe’s account, Liszt composed Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust for orchestra. Compositions for the piano inspired by the Faust legend include four Mephisto Waltzes, the Mephisto Polka and a transcription of a waltz from Gounod’s Faust. There is also a mixed chorus based on texts from Goethe’s story.
The Mephisto Waltz No. 1, composed around 1860 while Liszt was in Weimar, is the second of Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust entitled “The Dance in the Inn.” Its program outlines events in the Faust story. Faust and Mephistopheles enter a village inn as wedding festivities are underway. Mephistopheles snatches the violin away from one of the peasants and tunes it string-by-string before playing his frenzied dance. The music slows for a captivating new theme as Faust tries to seduce one of the maidens. Again, the devil’s dance rouses the revelers. The nightingale pipes a tune, and Faust slips off into the woods with his young mistress.
—Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2013
Elissa Johnston, Soprano and percussionist
Adriana Manfredi, Mezzo-soprano and percussionist
Grant Gershon, Tenor and percussionist
Cedric Berry, Bass-baritone and percussionist
Program to include the Ravinia premiere of David Lang's Pulitzer Prize winning The Little Match Girl Passion as well as works performed by eighth blackbird
Andy Akiho is an eclectic composer and performer whose interests run from steel pan to traditional classical music. As a percussionist, Akiho has performed with numerous professional ensembles, and his immersion in various genres has given him a unique approach to his primary instrument, the steel pan. A graduate of the University of South Carolina, the Manhattan School of Music and the Yale School of Music, Akiho is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. erase (2011) is a full-tilt, machine-like virtuoso assault. Akiho has turned the piano and vibraphone into one strange new super-instrument by having the performers use non-traditional techniques. Rubber bands, credit cards and dowel rods are all used to create this unique sound-world. Andy Akiho’s erase won first prize in the 2011 Finale National Composition Contest, a program of the American Composers Forum in partnership with MakeMusic, Inc., and eighth blackbird.
Born in Vermont in 1981 and raised in Providence, RI, New York-based composer Nico Muhly graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English literature. In 2004 he received a master of music degree from The Juilliard School, where he studied under Christopher Rouse and John Corigliano. Doublespeak (2012) was written for eighth blackbird for the Music Now! festival in Cincinnati, in honor of Philip Glass’s 75th birthday. Muhly writes, “My mission in writing the piece was twofold: first, to write 8bb the most fun piece possible for them, at just the right length. The second was to in some way tip my hat to Philip Glass, whom I admire broadly and deeply. eighth blackbird has played so much fast, loosely repetitive music over the years; I wanted to refine this kind of material into its purest, most delicious form and point back to the ’70s, when classical music perfected obsessive repetition. The piece begins by applying an additive process to a small cell on the solo violin. This is the defining gesture of the piece, and is subject to much variation. Occasionally, the busy textures give way to drones played by the soprano recorder, under which we begin to hear chords from Philip’s insanely beautiful Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74). The piece unfolds in similar episodes: fast music offset by slow, melancholic memories of the music of the late 1960s and 1970s. (Aren’t those the intervals from Violin Phase? Was that a cell from In C?). Towards the end of the piece, the language of Music in Twelve Parts becomes more dominant and gradually overtakes all the busy material. The piece ends in a stylized dream-state.”
these broken wings
David Lang writes: “The three movements of these broken wings (2007) concentrate on three different physical and musical challenges. The first movement consists of music that requires incredible stamina and intense concentration. Sad, falling gestures dominate the slow second movement, and I gave the vague but hopefully inspiring instruction that the players should drop things when they are not playing. In the last movement I wanted to make music that danced and pushed forward, in the hope that it would encourage the musicians to do so as well.” —Program notes provided by eighth blackbird
The Little Match Girl Passion
I wanted to tell a story. A particular story—in fact, the story of “The Little Match Girl” by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. The original is ostensibly for children, and it has that shocking combination of danger and morality that many famous children’s stories do. A poor young girl, whose father beats her, tries unsuccessfully to sell matches on the street, is ignored and freezes to death. Through it all she somehow retains her Christian purity of spirit, but it is not a pretty story.
What drew me to “The Little Match Girl” is that the strength of the story lies not in its plot but in the fact that all its parts—the horror and the beauty—are constantly suffused with their opposites. The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories; her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There is a kind of naive equilibrium between suffering and hope.
There are many ways to tell this story. One could convincingly tell it as a story about faith or as an allegory about poverty. What has always interested me, however, is that Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus. The girl suffers, is scorned by the crowd, dies and is transfigured. I started wondering what secrets could be unlocked from this story if one took its Christian nature to its conclusion and unfolded it, as Christian composers have traditionally done in musical settings of the Passion of Jesus.
The most interesting thing about how the Passion story is told is that it can include texts other than the story itself. These texts are the reactions of the crowd, penitential thoughts, statements of general sorrow, shock or remorse. These are devotional guideposts, the markers for our own responses to the story, and they have the effect of making the audience more than spectators to the sorrowful events onstage. These responses can have a huge range—in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, these extra texts range from famous chorales that his congregation was expected to sing along with to completely invented characters, such as the “Daughter of Zion” and the “Chorus of Believers.” The Passion format— the telling of a story while simultaneously commenting upon it—has the effect of placing us in the middle of the action, and it gives the narrative a powerful inevitability.
My piece is called The Little Match Girl Passion, and it sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Match Girl” in the format of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Hans Christian Andersen, H.P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion) and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.
The Little Match Girl Passion was commissioned by Carnegie Hall Corporation and The Perth Theater and Concert Hall for Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices, which gave the first performance on October 27, 2007, at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City. Described by The New Yorker as “one of the most original and moving scores of recent years,” The Little Match Girl Passion received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008.
—Program notes by David Lang