Albert Roussel (1869-1937)
Le festin de l’araignée, Symphonic fragments, Op. 17
(The Spider’s Feast)
Born into a wealthy family of manufacturers of home decorating textiles, Albert Roussel was orphaned by the age if ten, then lost his grandparents and was shuttled for his care among other family members – a classical case of a poor rich child. He showed early musical talent, but also loved the sea, finally deciding on a naval career. He graduated in 1889 and served the navy for five years, mostly in North Africa and in Indochina. It was while on shipboard that he wrote his first composition, Fantasie for violin and piano and some short pieces reflecting an interest in Indian music that remained with him throughout his career. In 1894 he resigned his commission in order to pursue his interest in music, a career change enabled by his inherited wealth.
A student of Vincent d’Indy, he took over his teacher’s counterpoint classes from 1902 to 1914, teaching future composers as divergent as Eric Satie and Edgar Varèse. Shortly before World War I he composed two of his major works, the opera Padmâvatî, based on a Hindu legend, and the pantomime/ballet Le festin de l’araignée.
Premiered in 1913, Le festin de l’araignée is the allegorical story of insect life in a country garden, told through dance and mime by a spider, a butterfly, a mayfly, ants, praying mantises and dung beetles. The spider’s web traps various insects, but as the spider prepares to enjoy the feast, two praying mantises pounce on it for their own dinner. The ballet ends with a funeral march for the mayfly and its interment. Shortly after the premiere, Roussel extracted the “Symphonic Fragments,” which contain some of the dances and a few of the pantomimes. Unfortunately, the dramatic trajectory of the ballet is considerably attenuated.
While the fragments flow into each other without pause (insect-like), Roussel gave them titles:
- Prélude: The Prélude opens peacefully Example 1 but introduces several of the insects that appeared in the ballet but not in the Symphonic Fragments, particularly the Spider’s musical appearance Example 2
- Entrée des fourmis (Entry of the Ants): Since communities of ants are referred to as “armies,” their music has a military character – but with an insect-like cast. Example 3
- Danse du papillon (Butterfly’s dance): The fluttery musical line seems to imitate a butterfly’s irregular flight path. Example 4
- Eclosion de l’Ephémère (Hatching of the mayfly): Example 5
- Danse de l’Ephémère: (Mayfly’s dance): The little waltz begins innocently enough Example 6 but ends with the little Mayfly struggling to free herself from the Spider’s web.
- Funérailles de l’Ephémère (Mayfly’s funeral): Example 7 This dirge has all the funereal clichés, including a mournful English horn solo.
- La nuit tombe sur jardin solitaire (Night falls on the lonely garden): This epilogue is a shorter reprise of the Prélude without the fauna.
Lowell Liebermann (b.1961)
A native of New York City, composer, conductor and pianist Lowell Liebermann began piano studies at age eight and composition studies at fourteen. He composed his Piano Sonata, Op. 1, at fifteen, and used it for his performing debut a year later at Carnegie Recital Hall. He studied at the Juilliard School with David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti, graduating in 1987 with a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree. From 1998 to 2002 he served as composer-in-residence with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, for whom he composed his Symphony No. 2 in 2000 to commemorate the Orchestra’s centennial. In addition to composing, Liebermann maintains an active performing and conducting schedule.
Liebermann is often considered by critics as “backward-looking,” employing a musical language that recalls the neo-Romanticism of Samuel Barber, his teacher David Diamond and Howard Hanson. Audiences and conductors, however, appreciate his lyrical voice, making him one of the most frequently performed and recorded contemporary composer, with multiple recordings of many of his pieces. Among his most popular works are the Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra and Flute Concerto, both commissioned by James Galway.
A prolific composer, Liebermann has dipped into every musical genre, in particular chamber music in such standard configurations as the string quartet and piano trio but also including sonatas for piano and various instruments – including bass koto. His first opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was premiered at the L'Opéra de Monte-Carlo in 1996 with great success. His second opera, Miss Lonelyhearts, to a libretto by J. D. McClatchy after the novel by Nathanael West, was commissioned by the Juilliard School as part of its centennial celebration and was premiered in April 2006 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Lincoln center.
The Cello Concerto was co-commissioned by the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, together with the Toledo Symphony (OH), Springfield Symphony (MA), Jackson Symphony (MI), Jacksonville Symphony (FL).
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
Throughout his creative career, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's inspiration went through extreme cycles, tied to his frequent bouts of deep depression and self-doubt. In mid-May 1888 he wrote to his brother Modest that he was convinced that he had written himself out and that he now felt neither the impulse nor the inclination to compose. By the end of the month, however, he set about "...getting a symphony out of my dulled brain, with difficulty." Inspiration must have started to flow, for by the end of August, the massive Fifth Symphony was finished.
As was the case with most of Tchaikovsky's compositions, the premiere of the Symphony – in St. Petersburg, with the composer conducting – earned mixed reactions. The audience liked it, critics panned it and fellow-composers were envious. Modest believed that the problem with the critics lay with his brother's lack of confidence as a conductor. Tchaikovsky himself, however, was never at ease with the Symphony, and wrote to his benefactress, Nadeja von Meck: "Having played my symphony twice in St. Petersburg and once in Prague, I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure. There is something repellent in it, some exaggerated color, some insincerity of construction, which the public instinctively recognizes. It was clear to me that the applause and ovations were not for this but for other works of mine, and that the Symphony itself will never please the public." For the rest of his life he felt ambivalent about its merits, although after a concert in Germany, where the musicians were enthusiastic, he felt more positive.
The mood of the entire Symphony is set by the introduction, a somber motto in the clarinets that reappears throughout the work and hints at some hidden extra-musical agenda, Example 1 a quote from a trio in Mihail Glinka's opera, A Life for the Tsar, on the words "Turn not into sorrow," Perhaps the motto reflects the melancholy and self-doubt Tchaikovsky experienced when he started composing the Symphony; certainly its mood is maintained throughout most of the work, where it casts a pall over whatever it touches. Some biographers have identified it with the Fate motive that appears throughout the Fourth Symphony, which is unrelentingly pessimistic. In the Fifth, the reincarnation of the motto from e minor to E major at the end of the Finale suggests the composer's reversal to a more positive frame of mind. The first theme is a resolute march, almost a grim procession through adversity. Example 2 A second beautifully orchestrated theme reveals how many ways there are to represent a sigh in music. Example 3 The second movement, marked Andante cantabile, contains one of the repertory's great horn solos, Example 4 followed by a more animated theme for solo oboe. Example 5 The middle section of this ABA form features the clarinet in yet another poignant theme, Example 6 broken up by the tragic motto Example 7 before a return to an embellished version of the opening themes.
The third movement, a waltz based on a street melody the composer had heard in Florence ten years before, also has an undertone of sadness, and towards the end the somber motto is again heard, Example 8 & Example 9 the mood continuing into the Finale.
The last movement presents the motto as the focal point of a final struggle between darkness and light, symbolized by the vacillation between its original E minor and E major. Example 10 The stately introduction mirrors the opening of the piece, although in an ambiguous mood and mode. Example 11 With the Allegro, the key returns decidedly to the minor, but the tempo picks up into a spirited trepak, a Russian folkdance. Finally, following a grand pause, the key switches definitively to E major – Example 12 with great pomp and fanfare – for a majestic coda based on the motto and a final trumpet blast of a version in E major of the first movement march. Example 13