Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)
Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66
By the early 1880s, Antonín Dvorák was already well known outside of his native Bohemia. Brahms had met him in 1875 and became his mentor, urging Fritz Simrock, the most famous music publisher in Berlin, to publish Dvorák’s Moravian Dances and the first set of the Slavonic Dances. Vienna’s famous curmudgeon music critic, Eduard Hanslick, also encouraged Dvorák and gave him prominent billing in his reviews. In 1875 and ‘77 Brahms and Hanslick supported him when he entered – and won – the competitions for the Austrian State Prize in music.
Dvorák composed the Scherzo capriccioso in the short span of four weeks during the spring of 1883. It was for him a period of grief and resignation, brought about by the death of his mother to whom he was very close. According to the conductor Hans Swarowsky, writing the Scherzo was for Dvorák “a forcible attempt to regain lost happiness.”
This Scherzo capriccioso is very large in scope; a full 15 minutes in length, it is long for any symphonic movement and only loosely follows the “rules” for a classical scherzo. Rather, Dvorák builds a huge movement with aspects of sonata allegro form, scherzo/trio form and his own quirky ideas. The work also presents a wide range of moods among the different themes. The light-heartedness suggested by the title masks a work that is, in turn, dramatic, melancholy, introspective, lyrical and playful. Repeatedly throughout the Scherzo, Dvorák introduces exuberant new themes with somber, melancholy introductions – a musical practical joke for which Haydn was famous.
The horns, who have a major role in this piece, operate as a herald for new themes, stealing a piece of the main scherzo melody to begin what becomes a hesitant little introduction Example 1 for a jolly, folk-like clod-hopping theme. Example 2 Although this work is technically a scherzo, Dvorák sneaks in a second theme as if in a classic sonata allegro form. Example 3 This melody is a more wistful, slightly melancholy waltz.
The Trio is generally more introspective, introduced by choirs of woodwinds Example 4 and setting up another gentle, melancholy waltz Example 5 that becomes increasingly tragic as it moves into a long formal development section of all the melodies in the piece–an interesting structural variant for a scherzo. This section begins with the Trio waltz in the strings combined with the main scherzo theme, Example 6 and includes a beautiful flute solo with bass clarinet and a flute duet with pizzicato strings and harp. Example 7
The Scherzo is not repeated exactly, but rather, blasts out in the full orchestra as if drowning out any hint sadness from the serious development section. Example 8 The piece concludes, however, with a subdued coda, suggesting that we are going to leave the concert hall somewhat unfulfilled. Example 9 But Dvorák has literally the last laugh in this capricious scherzo as the strings burst in with a “Ha ha ha” motive, and the rest of the orchestra scrambles in for a race to the finish. Example 10
Zhou Long (b: 1953)
Postures, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Growing up as an artist during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) made for a harsh existence. Zhou Long was born into a musical family and studied the piano from a young age, but was relocated for “cultural reeducation” to a rural area to drive a tractor.
As a result of a back injury he was moved to a small town near Beijing, where he joined a song and dance troupe. Finally, in 1977, he was allowed to enter the reopened Beijing Conservatory, graduating in 1983. Shortly thereafter he moved to the United States to continue his studies, receiving a Doctor of Musical Arts from Columbia University in 1993. He is currently Professor of Composition at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.
Zhou has embraced the world of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), the legendary golden age of Chinese civilization. He has incorporated various aspects of its musical tradition into his compositions. A tomb from Shi’An (of the famous Chinese warrior sculptures) revealed instruments from the period, many of them imports from along the Silk Road, as well as inscribed tablets with playing instructions for ensemble concerts and scores for solo performance. Contemporary Chinese ensembles recreate the music of this period on modern instruments.
Postures is an eclectic work that juxtaposes modern Western sonorities with those of Classical Chinese music. The arrangement of the movements mimics to some degree the Classical concerto. Throughout it highlights the piano as a virtuoso percussion instrument.
The first movement alludes to a Shaman-dance from North-east China, during which the piano mimics some of the animal postures seen in the art of kung fu. There are frequent tempo shifts within the movement.
In the second movement, the piano imitates two contrasting bells (Mighty Bells and Frost Bells). But one hears an enormous variety of bell-like sounds, from gentle tinkling to the tolling of great brass bells.
In the wild finale, Zhou Lang supports the piano with a battery of Western and Chinese percussion instruments. The movement represents the Monkey King, a prominent character from the Beijing Opera.
Adolphe Adam (1803-1856)
From Giselle, Grand Pas de deux from Act II
The son of a professional pianist and composer, French composer Adolphe Adam was discouraged by his father from following in his footsteps. But the son prevailed and entered the Paris Conservatory at age 17, intent on becoming a composer for the theater. In, he composed over 80 operas and ballets, the most famous of which is Giselle, the only one still in the repertory.
In other ventures he was less successful. Attempting to open a third opera company in Paris, he went bankrupt when the 1848 revolution broke out, ending the constitutional monarchy of the “citizen king” Louis Philippe and inaugurating the Second Republic. When Adam’s father died that year, he was unable to pay for the funeral. To extricate himself financially, he became a music critic and a composition teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. These new ventures, together with a string of new successful operas, restored his economic situation.
Giselle, premiered in 1841, is the story of a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart when she discovers that her lover, Albrecht, is about to marry another woman. Hardly alone in her misery, Giselle is supported by the ghostly spirits of Wilis, jilted maidens who, out for revenge, force their former lovers to dance until they die of exhaustion. The Wilis rouse Giselle’s spirit, but when she discovers what the ghosts are planning for her former lover, she intercedes and succeeds in stopping them. Having spared the repentant Albrecht, she returns to her grave in peace.
In the nineteenth-century ballet tradition – reflected also in the ballroom – important dances were comprised of several sections, reflecting various moods, as well as permitting the dancers to show off their emotional, dramatic and technical skills. The Grand pas de deux comes at the end of Act II. It takes place as Giselle (portrayed by a solo cello) dances slowly with Albrecht until daybreak when the Wilis must return to their graves. Given the solemnity of the occasion, the Pas de deux is a “love duet” that relies less on technical aplomb than on sentimentality.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Suite from Swan Lake
In the summer of 1871 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky spent some time at his sister’s family home. For the entertainment of the children, he composed and staged a scena called Swan Lake, with a cast consisting of two children, his brother Modest and wooden toy swans. Nothing is known about the music, nor whether five years later any of it made its way into a commission from the Imperial Theaters to compose a ballet.
Tchaikovsky, short of money and still struggling for recognition in his own country – although rapidly gaining recognition abroad – settled on the story of Swan Lake which he had admired for years and in whose somber ending he saw a reflection of his own dark moods.
The source of the story and of the scenario is unknown, although it contains elements recognizable throughout European folk literature. It tells of Prince Siegfried, whose mother arranges a ball during which he is to choose a bride. Lured away from a hunt by a flock of swans, the prince discovers that they are actually the princess Odette and her maidens, enchanted by the evil sorcerer Rotbart so that they can take their human form only at night. Siegfried falls in love with Odette, who tells him that only constant and selfless love can break her spell. In an attempt to thwart the lovers, the sorcerer sends his daughter Odile to the ball. Odile, dressed entirely in black, is literally and figuratively a carbon copy of Odette, and Siegfried, of course, mistakes her for his beloved. He declares his love for the impostor, thereby losing his Odette forever and condemning her to the bonds of her enchantment. The original version of the ballet ends with the death of both Odette and Siegfried engulfed in the lake.
Tchaikovsky started work on the project in the spring of 1875, finishing it in April of the following year. Its premiere in March 1877 was an unmitigated disaster, partly the result of Bolshoy in-house political infighting, partly the inadequacy of the choreographer, conductor, dancers and orchestra.
Swan Lake was a revolutionary work. Its intensely dramatic score was so demanding for choreographer, dancers and orchestra that from its premier, music from other composers was increasingly substituted for Tchaikovsky’s original score; it was finally dropped from the Bolshoy repertoire after 1883. Tchaikovsky himself never saw a satisfactory performance of the complete work, although he saw a production of the second act in 1889 in Prague that gave him “one brief moment of unalloyed happiness.”
Its revival in 1895, two years after the composer’s death, was a resounding success, with lavish staging and new choreography by Marius Petipa. It restored Tchaikovsky’s music – with certain alterations of the musical sequence and a scenario modified by the composer’s brother Modest. It is this version that made it the world’s most popular ballet, and most of the later versions have stemmed from this production. Choreographers, however, frequently alter the ending, doing in Rotbart and mounting a grand apotheosis of the lovers.
During the summer of 1880, Tchaikovsky’s benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, wrote Tchaikovsky that she had engaged the services of a young French musician to tutor her daughters. That French musician was the 18-year-old Claude Debussy, who during the course of the summer made piano four hands arrangements of a number of dances from Swan Lake. These piano arrangements became Debussy’s first published work.
Tchaikovsky himself intended to arrange an orchestral suite from the ballet but apparently never got around to it. After his death, anonymous arrangers extracted suites from the long ballet with many combinations and permutations of the dances, some following the gist of the story line, others arranged on musical criteria alone. The first one, consisting of six dances and of unknown parentage, was published in 1900 and became known as Op. 20a.
A different Suite was compiled by the Muzgiz, the Soviet State Music Pulishing House, in 1954. It consists of the following movements:
- Scène. The beginning of Act II introduces the iconic oboe solo and Leitmotif of the ballet. Example 1
- Valse from Act I; Siegfried is entertained by a bevy of prospective brides. Example 2
- Danse des petites cygnes (Dance of the Little Swans): This oboe duet is known for its choreography in which four swan maidens link hands across their bodies and perform rapid staccato steps in unison. Example 3
- Scène. The Pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried features beautiful violin, harp and cello solos, supported by a pair of oboes for the swan maidens’ refrain. Example 4
The next four appear in sequence in Act III:
- Danse Hongroise. (Czardas). Example 5
- Danse éspagnole (Bolero) Example 6
- Danse Napolitaine. Example 7
- Mazurka Example 8