Written by Ronald Comber
Rodney Sharman (1958-)
Rodney Sharman is Composer-in-Residence of Early Music Vancouver’s “New Music for Old Instruments”. He has been Composer-in-Residence of the Victoria Symphony, the National Youth Orchestra of Canada and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, as well as Composer-Host of the Calgary Philharmonic’s New Music Festival, “Hear and Now”. In addition to concert music, Rodney Sharman writes music for cabaret, opera and dance. He works regularly with choreographer James Kudelka, for whom he has written scores for Oregon Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and Coleman Lemieux Compagnie (Toronto). Sharman was awarded First Prize in the 1984 CBC Competition for Young Composers and the 1990 Kranichsteiner Prize in Music, Darmstadt, Germany. His score for the music-dance-theatre piece From The House Of Mirth won the 2013 Dora Mavor Moore Award for outstanding sound design/composition (choreography by James Kudelka, text by Alex Poch Goldin after Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth).
Byrd Dances is a transcription for orchestra of keyboard works by William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623), particularly Pavana – the Earle of Salisbury and Second Galliard. The Pavane and Galliard were typically paired together, as were these two by the composer. The former is a processional dance; the latter, a “leaping” dance. I sang Byrd’s music in choirs when I was a teenager, but came to know his keyboard music only recently, through the recommendation of musicologist David Metzer. In taking up Byrd’s dances, I layer, fragment, extend, and colour the originals in the manner of a fantasia, another genre in which Byrd excelled. The piece is dedicated to Tania Miller and the Victoria Symphony.
The transcription was written as part of my composer residency with the Victoria Symphony, funded in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.
Rococo Variations, Op. 33
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
The middle period of Tchaikovsky’s career was remarkable for the number of major works that flowed, white hot, from his pen. In the years immediately surrounding his composition of the Rococo Variations (1876), Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake, the Third Symphony, Francesa di Rimini, the Third String Quartet, and several smaller works. He also, by the autumn of 1877, had commenced work on the Fourth Symphony and Eugene Onegin. Life must have been hectic, for he toured and held official positions, as well as conducting a courtship which was to have disastrous marital consequences.
Tchaikovsky wrote the Rococo Variations for the cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who gave the work’s premiere in Moscow on November 30, 1877, almost a year after its completion. That bold statement of fact conceals a bitter tale, for Fitzenhagen not only exercised editorial powers in the cello part, but in performance actually altered orchestra parts and even the order in which the Variations were played! Fitzenhagen appears to have had some proprietary right to the Rococo Variations overall, for it was his version of the score that was published, not Tchaikovsky’s.
Whatever the version, the Rococo Variations are quite delightful. As the title implies, Tchaikovsky wrote the music with the musical spirit of the Eighteenth Century in mind. The lightly classical scoring, designed to support the development of a wonderfully chaste theme, is a testimony to Tchaikovsky’s inventive nature.
Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
So often, when we say that a composer works in contrasting styles, we mean that he is capable of writing brilliantly at a high pitch of inspiration, or interminably (we assume) to assuage his sense of duty. And, after all, attempts which fail to please are still better than no attempts at all.
There was a time when the Eighth Symphony of Beethoven was considered by all to be a failed attempt. In the light cast by the nobly heroic Seventh, the slyly humorous Eighth, the shorter and stranger work, seemed almost incomprehensively misbegotten … especially as it had been written in the same year. The Eighth had to wait several decades for general appreciation, with Schumann, Berlioz and Wagner all separately proclaiming the work’s importance to gradually growing audiences of believers. Beethoven, after an unsuccessful premiere on February 26, 1814 at one of his marathon concerts, washed his hands, not of the work, which he thought his best, but of the public. I have to digress slightly to describe, with awe for the audience’s stamina, this particular concert. It contained, besides a number of trios and songs, both the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy and the bizarre showpiece, the Battle of Victoria, or Wellington’s Victoria … a stupendous work of little real merit, written originally for mechanical orchestra (or Panharmonicon), but so popular as to demand regular performance life. It too was an example of Beethoven’s sense of humour, but for many years only musicians got the joke.
Beethoven started work on the Eighth in the summer of 1812, a somewhat stressful time in his life, when he was chasing his brother Johann about the many watering places of Austro-Hungary, trying to convince him that he was about to commit an imprudent marriage. Most of the Symphony appears to have been composed in Linz to which Beethoven retired when the constant arguments proved too much even for him. In the end, the brother married the girl, and Beethoven returned to Vienna with a major new work.
Each movement of the Eighth Symphony is markedly idiosyncratic in its style. The organic progression from movement to movement so noticeable in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, while dealt with in a different way in the Seventh, is here totally lacking. Beethoven apparently had four very distinct images in his mind before starting and intended their progression to be complementary rather than evolutionary.
The first movement, marked Allegro vivace e con brio, is of the gusty, boisterous style which Beethoven used so well. In fairly strict sonata-allegro form, the music nonetheless exudes an element of grotesquely as textures and dynamics change in what seem to be random patterns.
The second movement, marked Allegretto scherzando (this takes the place of a slow movement in this work), was written to honour and caricature the inventor of the metronome, the panharmonicon and the infamous automatic chess-player, Johann Maelzel. The ticking of clockwork runs throughout this movement, occasionally doubling its speed as though a cog had slipped, whilst delicate themes weave in and out of the pattern.
The third movement is a good honest Minuet and Trio, with a few additions. Wrong, or at least almost wrong entries abound in this imitation of a village orchestra, while the Trio mocks the pretensions of the early clarinet with repeated demands for the highest possible note.
The Finale, marked allegro vivace, is a masterpiece of vitality and gaiety, which incidentally is in both sonata form and rondo form simultaneously. It is exciting to play as well as to hear, and it has Beethoven’s record length Coda attached to it, thereby bringing the Symphony to an intense conclusion.