Written by Ronald Comber

Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark
SESQUIE for Canada’s 150th Anniversary
Kelly-Marie Murphy (1964-    )

One of Canada’s most eminent composers, Kelly-Marie Murphy has achieved an international renown with her fascinating works. Of today’s piece, she writes:

Commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with the support of the Government of Canada and the Glenn Gould Foundation, this is a single-movement work for orchestra written to celebrate Glenn Gould’s 85th birthday and the 70th anniversary of his debut performance with the TSO.

I wanted to explore the difference between the public perception of Glenn Gould (quirky, odd, ingenious, obsessive), and how Glenn perceived himself (a regular guy with many interests; mischievous; possibly wearing a cheap suit).  He did a fascinating series of radio documentaries, the first of which was called The Search for Petula Clark.  Glenn was intrigued by chasing radio relay stations on a drive up to Northern Ontario.  At certain intervals, he could hear Petula Clark’s current hit, “Who Am I?”  By the end of the drive, Glenn was, naturally, an expert on the piece and the distance between relay stations.  You can imagine him driving so as not to miss any of the relayed broadcasts of Petula Clark!  He speaks about this pop song with the same focus and intellect as he would use on Bach.  It is both funny and charming.  These elements of energy, curiosity, reflection, and playfulness are woven through the orchestra.

I am very grateful to the Glenn Gould Foundation, and to Lorne Tulk — Gould’s longtime friend and recording engineer.  It was a wonderful experience getting to know more about what made Glenn Gould an extraordinary person.

Siegfried Idyll
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

In August 1870, Richard Wagner and Cosima von Bulow, the daughter of Liszt and former wife of Wagner’s disciple Hans von Bulow, were married, thus cementing one of music history’s most remarkable partnerships.  The couple had lived together since 1868, and in 1869 Cosima had borne a son.  Her willingness to disregard convention in favour of the composer prompted Wagner to write after the wedding: “She has defied every disapprobation and has taken upon herself every condemnation.  She has borne me a wonderfully beautiful boy, whom I can boldly call Siegfried; he is now growing, together with my work; he has given me a new long life, which has at last attained a meaning.”

Wagner devised an even more expressive tribute to his wife and son in the Siegfried Idyll, which he completed in early December 1870.  On Christmas morning, the day reserved for the celebration of Cosima’s birthday, he assembled an orchestra on the stairs beneath her bedroom and conducted the new work.  Cosima, who was still abed, was enchanted and moved to a state of exaltation.  In her diary, she wrote that evening: “As I awoke, my ear caught a sound which swelled fuller and fuller; no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming, music was sounding, and what music!  As it died away, Richard came into my room with the five children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem.  I was in tears, but so was the whole house…I have spent the whole day as though in a dream…”  Although admiration for Wagner the man may be qualified, this work, which he called his favourite composition, is still profoundly moving.

The Siegfried Idyll is scored for flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, trumpet, two horns and strings.  The latter group tends to predominate.  Wagner uses leitmotifs, short musical ideas representing some facet of the drama, from his music drama “Siegfried”, which was completed in 1869.  Cosima would have recognized the meaning of each motive.  The four motives, “Peace”, “Sleep”, “Siegfried Guardian of the World” and “Love’s Resolve”, are interwoven with a German cradle song in a complex but gentle musical fabric.  The bright key of E major predominates over chromaticism, and the overall impression of the work is one of deep, sincere, almost religious feeling.  Cosima’s awareness that the Siegfried Idyll represented the fullness of her shared life with Wagner is paralleled by our recognition of the musical richness and completeness of this wonderful gift.

Piano Concerto No.1 IN D Minor, OP.15
Johannes Brahms  (1833-1897)

One hears so much about Brahms, the grand old man of music, that it is a treat to discuss his first major orchestrated work, and with it, his early career.

The young Brahms was blessed with something extremely rare amongst the great composers – luck.  His first professional engagement was in 1853, as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist, Remenyi. Touring through Germany, they arrived one night in Gottingen just in time for a performance of the appallingly difficult Kreutzer sonata by Beethoven.  To their horror, they discovered that the concert piano was a half-tone flat.  Brahms, playing from memory, then transposed the entire composition from A to B flat, and played to a successful conclusion.  Now normally, no one is the wiser when such a feat takes place.  That, after all, is the point of the exercise.  In this case, however, there was one man who noticed; the violinist-composer Joachim.  After the concert, Joachim introduced himself, and after hearing some of Brahms’s compositions, immediately gave him letters of introduction to both Liszt and Schumann.  On the strength of his few compositions, both men hailed him as the great composer of the future.  (“Hats off, gentlemen, a Genius!” wrote Schumann, and his future was assured.)

The Piano Concerto No.1 is a work with an odd genesis.  In 1854, Schumann, in his last lucid days before the mental breakdown, told Brahms that he must write for orchestra – work with large forms.  Brahms started an overture, but discarded it in the harrowing days of Schumann’s illness.  Brahms then started work on a symphony, the first two movements of which were to be transformed into the opening two movements of the First Piano Concerto.  Schumann died before the concerto could be completed. Brahms wrote “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine” over the beautiful theme of the slow movement, in memory of his friend.

To Brahms’s chagrin, the work was not an initial success.  The first performance, at Hanover in 1859, provoked no reaction at all from a slightly bemused audience.  The second performance, in Leipzig, was hissed.  Although the third performance, in Hamburg, was a minor triumph, Brahms was not optimistic, writing “the concerto will please someday when I have improved its constructions, and a second will sound different.”

Well, the Second does sound different, but with hindsight, we can see that the First can be regarded as a masterpiece with no apologies needed.  The concepts of harmony and of orchestration are already mature, and the breadth of melodic invention is staggering.  The First Concerto has become a major work in the piano repertoire and is a composition upon which the reputation of many virtuosi is founded.

In a period when composers expended enormous effort writing their own programme notes in order to explain every emotional nuance in their works (incredible twaddle for the most part), Brahms stood alone by explaining nothing.  Only in the First Piano Concerto do we know that the slow movement is meant to describe Clara Schumann, and that by prying into his personal correspondence.

The first movement, marked Maestoso, opens violently with a harsh theme in the violins, played over a timpani roll.  New, more temperate melodies in the clarinets and violins soon give way to the original tensions of the first theme.  The piano enters in a mood of resignation and is slowly drawn into existing themes, then introduces a new chordal theme of great nobility.  A bravura passage in octaves heralds the recapitulation, and the music grows increasingly virtuosic to the dramatic conclusion of the movement.

The second movement, marked Adagio is in ternary form.  The violins and bassoons open with a long cantilena passage, repeated in a meditative manner by the solo piano.  Harmonic tension builds, and a long piano solo leads into the middle section, marked by beautiful repeated passages for oboes and clarinets.  The original theme returns and, after dramatic treatment by the piano, the movement concludes peacefully.

The third movement, marked Rondo (Allegro non troppo), is a splendid early example of Brahms’s technical brilliance – both as a composer and as a pianist.  The stern, heroic principal theme is admirably complemented by suave counter melodies, and Brahms rather originally developed the principal theme with each repetition (usually, the principal theme is left intact).  As the movement progresses, the piano part gains in brilliance, and with a final return of the theme, transformed from minor to major, the concerto ends with a triumphant flourish.