Masterworks 2 Edvard Grieg 1843-1907

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1

During the nineteenth century, Norway was ruled first by Denmark and then by Sweden, who finally relinquished it in 1905. During the occupation Norwegian culture was looked down upon and considered lower class. The comfortable middle class spoke mostly Danish and Swedish, and the Danish capital Copenhagen was considered the cultural capital.

The most successful and best known of nineteenth-century Scandinavian composers, Edvard Grieg was one of the great exponents of romantic nationalism and a promoter of his native country’s culture. He saw as his role in life to bring Scandinavian – especially Norwegian – musical and literary culture to the attention of the rest of Europe. He succeeded in this endeavor and as composer, pianist and conductor, became a sought-after fixture in Europe’s music centers. With his wife Nina, an accomplished singer, he traveled extensively, popularizing his songs and piano works. Grieg was also instrumental in bringing the work of Scandinavian poets and dramatists to the attention of the rest of Europe, especially Henrik Ibsen, Norway’s most famous playwright.

In 1867 Ibsen published Peer Gynt, a play satirizing the weaknesses of human nature. It is the fantastic picaresque journey of a would-be hero who suffers the hard knocks of life in search of his own identity. Peer’s quest entails contrasting episodes of selfishness and generosity, fantasy and reality, materialism and spirituality, steadfast loyalty and betrayal.

In 1874, Ibsen asked Grieg to write incidental music for a new production of the revised play. Initially Grieg thought that only a few fragments of music would be required, but by the time he finished the project more than a year later, he had written 23 sections, over one hour of music, including vocal and choral numbers. While Grieg attempted to express himself in the simple modes of his native Norwegian folk-music idioms, his early training in German Romanticism comes through; the music owes much to Mendelssohn and Schumann. In some of the sections Grieg tried to express in music the mood of the Norwegian scenery, but most of the music reflects the ambiguity of the play:

Grieg extracted two orchestral suites from the music, but the sequence of movements in the suites does not correspond to the dramatic order in the play. Rather, he created typical orchestral suites with movements alternating in mood and tempo. The movements of the two Suites each feature different orchestral solos or section solos. While composed for orchestra, some of the numbers in the incidental music included parts for soprano soloist and chorus that are often interpolated into the suites.

Morning Mood: Originally the Prelude to Act IV. The woodwinds proclaim the dawn and the rustling sounds of the woods and streams. Example 1 The mood darkens slightly in the middle section.

Death of Ase: Is a funereal chant for the death of Ase, Peer’s beleaguered widowed mother. Example 2

Anitra’s Dance: Anitra, the seductive daughter of an Arabian chief, tries to entice Peer to stay at the chief’s court. Example 3

In the Hall of the Mountain King: Peer has a run-in with trolls – Norway's indigenous monsters who hide out under bridges and populate the nightmares of Norwegian children. The beat of the dance is accentuated by the pizzicato in the basses. Example 4 The dance starts slowly, deep in the range of the solo bassoon, accompanied by pizzicato basses, gradually building up the tempo and dynamics as more instruments are added – a Norwegian Bolero. In Ibsen's play, this scene also includes a chorus. A coda with the unusual effect of staccato cymbal crashes concludes the Suite. Example 5

Before there were Talkies, there was Music
(Music accompanying Charlie Chaplin’s The Rink)

Commercial silent films were almost never silent. In fact, the term “silent film” was coined only after “talkies” came on the scene in 1929. Nor were they “invented” in the United States, much less Hollywood. These often elaborately mimed productions were accompanied by live music, sometimes composed for a specific film, improvised or played from a “cue sheet.” The first public projection of movies occurred in Paris in 1895, accompanied by a guitar.

This last technique enabled live musicians, usually a solo performer, to adjust the nature of the accompaniment to mesh with the action on film. For example, comic antics would call for fast-paced jaunty music, love scenes for sentimental ditties, and scary moments for crashing dissonance. Because the music was live, any given performer or theater would supply its own music, which ranged from tinkling piano, to full orchestra. Major cities often sported cinema palaces with cathedral-sized organs.

Now regarded as quaint, except for a few classics, movies were a high-class entertainment medium. Films were often accompanied by excerpts of European nineteenth-century works: D.W. Griffith’s now-notorious Birth of a Nation featured, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt. It appears that Camille Saint-Saëns composed the first dedicated film score in 1908 for the historical L’assassinat du duc de Guise. A number of other composers, including Honegger, Satie and Shostakovich, also provided dedicated scores for specific films.

Today, most people know silent film primarily through Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp comedies and the tinkling piano accompaniments that kept pace with the action. One problem initially, however, was that early movie cameras and projectors were hand cranked, not always at a steady speed (intentional or unintentional), and even the speed of early electric motors were not terribly reliable. An accompanist would have to keep one eye on the screen, as if following a conductor.

Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Le Chant du Rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale)

In 1908 Igor Stravinsky began composing an opera, The Nightingale, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen. He finished the first act, but got sidetracked by his work on the three commissioned ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. He did not get back to the opera and finish it until 1914. The result was a dissonance: The music style of Act I differed greatly from that of the other two acts, which came after the groundbreaking ballets.

Three years later Stravinsky used music from the last two acts of the opera to create a symphonic poem Le Chant du Rossignol, telling essentially the same story in three movements. Stravinsky’s musical language in Le Rossignol bears a strong resemblance to that of Petrushka, with classic European chinoiserie substituting for the Russian folk flavor. The composer indulges in the exoticism of the setting with brilliant orchestral color that rivals The Rite of Spring.

The narrative, as told by a Chinese fisherman, is clearly delineated in the music:

  1. Festivities in the Palace of the Emperor of China: The music opens with festivities at the court, Example 1 characterized by classic European chinoiserie, Example 2 after which nightingale sings for the Emperor. The bird is usually characterized as portrayed by the flute, Example 3 but Stravinsky embellishes the song with other soloists. Example 4
  2. The two Nightingales: The Emperor of Japan presents the Chinese Emperor with a mechanical nightingale that sings in imitation of the real one (solo oboe). Example 5 The nightingale flies away, and the angry Emperor declares the mechanical bird his favorite. Seemingly unwilling to abandon his Russian roots, Stravinsky ends the scene with a fisherman’s song (trumpet). Example 6
  3. The Illness and Recovery of the Emperor. The Emperor health begins to decline upon the loss of the nightingale. He is near death when the real bird returns. Example 7 In a long effort against Death, in which an added solo violin represents the enhanced birdsong, the nightingale saves the emperor. The courtiers, thinking the Emperor is dead, conduct a Funeral March. Example 8 In such transparently narrative music, the ending is surprisingly ambiguous, for although the Emperor lives, there is no celebratory music, only the lonely fisherman’s song.

John Corigliano b. 1938John Corigliano (b. 1938)
The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra

In 2000 John Corigliano’s score for the film The Red Violin garnered an Oscar. The movie portrays the career of a strangely varnished violin through three centuries and three continents, an instrument “cursed” by the soul of its maker's deceased wife, Anna (We don’t want to give away the plot of this fascinating film available on DVD.) The film opens in seventeenth-century Cremona and ends in contemporary Montreal. Corigliano’s score has acquired a life of its own, independent of the film.

A native of New York, Corigliano came by his musical talents honestly. His father, John Sr., was for 23 years the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and his mother an accomplished pianist. John, Jr. studied at Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music and subsequently worked at New York’s WQXR radio station and as an assistant director at CBS-TV.

Corigliano first came to prominence as a composer after winning the chamber music prize at the 1964 Spoleto Festival for his Sonata for Violin and Piano. Since the 1970s he has emerged as a successful and popular classical composer whose works are frequently and widely performed. From 1987 to 1990 he was composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony, a tenure that culminated in his powerful Symphony No. 1, his personal response to the AIDS crisis. Currently he holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York and, in 1991, was named to the faculty of The Juilliard School. In 2001 his Symphony No. 2, an expanded version of his 1995 String Quartet, won the Pulitzer Prize for music. Corigliano’s musical language, while mostly tonal and lyrical, does not shirk dissonance. His early music, especially, is reminiscent of the music of Milhaud and Bartók.

Even before the film premiered, the composer extracted the film’s solo violin melody, “Anna’s Theme,” Example 1 and composed the independent concert piece, Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra. He writes: “I decided to use “Anna's' theme,” manipulate it through stylistic variations, and adapt 19th-century techniques into the musical language of the 20th century."

The chaconne is a Baroque dance in which a short melody, usually in the lowest voice, is continually repeated while the other contrapuntal lines weave variations around it, maintaining the original harmonic structure throughout.

Corigliano’s Chaconne is somewhat freer in structure than the model. The piece as a whole derives its many moods to the high drama of the film. “Anna’s Theme” belongs exclusively to the solo violin, while the rest of the orchestra maintains its supporting harmonic structure very similar to the theme from the fourth movement of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 – also a chaconne. Example 2 The piece also achieves unity by the recurrence of a dotted rhythm that begins the first iterations of the chaconne harmony, Example 3 later restated in diminution Example 4

At times the soloist actually breaks away from the form entirely for flights of intense fancy Example 5 and drama. Example 6 Towards the end, there is an extended cadenza for the solo violin, recalling Bach’s great chaconne that concludes the Partita No. 2 in d minor for Unaccompanied Violin. Example 7

Program notes copyright by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn