Written by Ronald Comber
For this concert guest artist Tasmin Little has created a fascinating amalgam from three celebrated and very different works:
Four World Seasons – a suite for Violin, Strings, and Tibetan Singing Bowl
Roxanna Panufnik (1968- )
Roxanna Panufnik is an important British composer, the daughter of Sir Andrzej Panufnik, the Polish-English composer and conductor. Of Four World Seasons she writes:
“In early 2008 the violinist Tasmin Little rang me to ask whether I’d write a series of short pieces for her, accompanied by chamber orchestra. At the time she was artistic director of the Orchestra of the Swan’s Spring Sounds Festival and wanted something suitably festive and appealing to the event’s eclectic audience. Considering a world where global concern for climate change and seismic shifts in international political landscaped affect us all, we decided to take Antonio Vicaldi’s much-loved 1725 Four Seasons and give the concept a 21st century twist, creating an entirely new work with each season(lasting approximately 5 minutes) influenced by a country that has become culturally associated with it.”
“Sadly, incompatible duties meant that Autumn couldn’t happen with the Orchestra of the Swan – but the London Mozart Players (with whom I had just been appointed Associate Composer) came on board!”
The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)
Legendary tango composer and virtuoso bandoneonist, Astor Piazzolla, though born in Buenos Aires, grew up in New York City. Learning the bandoneon as soon as he grew big enough to manhandle it into obedience, he achieved such proficiency on the instrument that he returned to Buenos Aires at the age of 16 to work in the most popular tango bands of the day. Soon he was arranging music for several band-leaders and composing original pieces as well. By 1950 his popularity won him a rare chance, through a French grant, to study under Nadia Boulanger for a year. Boulanger carefully examined what he considered his most serious works, and then firmly told him that he should develop his art to reflect his personality and the country to which he belonged. Piazzolla then went on to re-invent the tango as a much grander form of art.
Today’s work was created gradually over the course of five years, from 1965 to 1970 as four separate works that gradually coalesced into one. Piazzolla performed that complete work several times with his band. In 1996-1998 the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov made a fresh orchestral arrangement ot the four pieces, adding some Vivaldi to the mix as well.
The Four Seasons
Antonio Vivaldi (1675-1741)
Generally, when a work is as resoundingly popular as The Four Seasons, there is a very great danger that it will become hackneyed sooner or later. Yet, The Four Seasons, after some sixty years of regular performance appears to be as well loved as ever. The reason for this is not far to seek. Vivaldi, producing in his career something over four hundred concertos, mostly of uniform merit, achieved in this set of four linked Violin Concertos a work of transcendent quality that completely overshadowed not only his own other efforts, but most of the Concertos of his contemporaries. At a time when music was comparatively ephemeral, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons outlived musical fashion to such an extent that Rousseau, some thirty-five years after Vivaldi’s death, produced a flute transcription for publication. Since then, enthusiasm has hardly wavered, though the introduction of the LP gave the work a much wider audience, leading to its absolute ascendancy today.
Vivaldi first published The Four Seasons in 1725, as part of his Opus VIII Concertos; a grouping of twelve works. The other Concertos represented his usual masterful conception of form in art, but The Four Seasons were boldly experimental. Vivaldi had combined the structure of the solo concerto with the musical depiction of events found in nature, with telling results.
The inspiration for The Four Seasons came from a set of four anonymous sonnets, from which Vivaldi took descriptive phrases to direct the development of musical ideas. The sonnets themselves are rather pedestrian, at least in translation, but Vivaldi enshrined them in the richest surroundings.
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, OP. 68 “Pastorale”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
In the past I have written about the remarkable contrasts in style between Beethoven’s even and odd numbered symphonies, especially in relation to the sternly heroic “Eroica” and the elegant Fourth. In today’s concert, the contrast is most dramatic yet: stylistic differences are quite eclipsed by the revelation to two opposing forces in Romanticism itself.
The “Pastorale” Symphony is rather an anomaly in Beethoven’s much discussed musical vision. Far from the heroic struggle, the Jovian passions of so much of his symphonic writing, it is at the same time clearly removed from the almost empiric classicism inherent in his lighter works. Instead, the “Pastorale” Symphony remains in the repertoire where others do not, simply because he lived far enough away in time from the Nature movement to understand its principles without being entangled in its rhetoric. He loved the country and wrote a symphony about it, not about literary movement or a style of landscape painting. He used those techniques found by other composers he thought appropriate and invented others. He was, after all, Beethoven.
It would appear that the “Pastorale” Symphony had a very long gestation period. The five movement structure with its programmatic descriptions is an echo of a program for a work written by Justin Heinrich Knecht in 1783, originally advertised on the back of Beethoven’s first published pieces. Sketches for the Symphony first appeared in 1803, with the serious work only occurring in 1808. The Symphony was, of course, not immediately popular, although certain recognition came as early as 1810 when E.T.A. Hoffman reviewed it enthusiastically. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the “Pastorale” Symphony achieved a new popularity, somewhat unfortunately, as a ballet, and has served in two capacities ever since (three, including Walt Disney).
The first movement, entitled The Awakening of Joyful Impressions on Arrival in the Country, marked Allegro ma non troppo, is dealt with succinctly by Beethoven himself on the manuscript title page – “More an expression of feeling than a tonal painting”. Beethoven didn’t really believe in specific description for description’s sake, suspecting rightly that only broad external forces could be sometimes imitated while nuances were always open to interpretation. The exposition of the movement is narrative, nonetheless. From the bucolic opening fifths, the music expands from theme to theme leading to a sudden relaxation into the strikingly original Development, filled with one bar repetitions over long drawn-out chords. The Recapitulation avoids both the original key at first, and any disturbing climax and the movement ends in peace.
The second movement, entitled Scene by the Brook, an Andante molto mosso, originally appeared in Beethoven’s sketches of 1803 with a repetition written in a lower pitch and the comment, “the larger the brook the deeper the tone.” The movement is comprised of a free set of variations with a second subject recurring for ballast, and moves undulating inexorably throughout its length. At the conclusion, Beethoven wrote the famous bird-calls: a flute figure is the nightingale, an oboe figure the quail, and a clarinet figure the cuckoo.
The third movement, a Jolly Gathering of Country Folk, is the Scherzo of the work. Peasant dances, possibly genuine ones, are used to great effect. A straightforward first section leads to an odd second section, imitating a village band, particularly in the limited bassoon part. A country dance ensues, and the entire movement repeats itself until suddenly interrupted by …
The fourth movement, Tempest, Storm, which achieves a real state of melodrama in spite of itself and only after the most frightful gust blows itself out.
The last movement, the Shepherd’s Song, Glad and Thankful Feelings after the Storm, opens with a clarinet yodel over a drone fifth, which repeated by the horn, soon develops into a theme for the first violins. A free series of variations follows, with much running passagework and the movement runs to a lyric and tender conclusion.