Written by Ronald Comber
Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite 3 (1932)
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
In this century, Ottorino Respighi has become celebrated for being the one Italian composer of his time not devoted to opera, in spite of the fact that he wrote six of them. His fame rests securely on a series of superb orchestral works, mostly of a descriptive character. The Pines and Fountains of Rome, the Birds, the Festivals of Rome are all living examples of Respighi’s remarkable gifts as a colourist and a composer of merit.
Respighi was fortunate to be under the early influence of a quiet revolutionary. Guiseppe Martucci, the Principal of the Bologna Conservatory, was an ardent supporter of the German symphonic tradition, and spent much time and effort in teaching his students the merits of an international view of art. His efforts were rewarded amply in Respighi’s case, as Respighi first went to St. Petersburg, ostensibly as a violinist in the Russian Imperial Theatre, but really to study orchestration under Rimsky-Korsakov, then later to Berlin, to work with the much under-rated master, Max Bruch.
The Ancient Airs and Dances, based on the beautiful lute melodies and songs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were written in three suites over a broad space of time. The first suitedates from 1917, the other two were brought out in 1924 and 1932, respectively. Throughout all three suites of the Ancient Airs and Dances, Respighi shows both his immense talent and his intelligence, for although he is marrying the simplest, most tender melodies with glamorous modern orchestrations, the spirit of the music is never defiled.
Respighi chose to make his Suite No. 3 a work for strings only. Darker in mood than the preceding two suites it is based on lute songs by Besard, a piece for guitar by Roncalli and lute pieces by Garsi da Parma and others.
Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat Major, K. ANH 9
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Mozart really was in an invidious position by the time he reached his early twenties; as a child prodigy who had grown up, he was much less marketable as a soloist than he had been only a few years before. As well, he was in the employ of an especially uncongenial master, the Archbishop of Salzburg, who strongly believed that musicians, however talented, should be servants and know their place. With the support of his parents, Mozart determined on an extended concert tour as a means of seeking his fortune, with Paris as his ultimate goal.
Travelling with his mother as companion, Mozart visited Munich, Augsburg and Mannheim without achieving much in the way of success. His arrival in Paris on March 23rd, 1778 was equally inauspicious, for the great artistic battle between the supporters of Gluck and the partisans for Piccinni was in full swing. Their respective operatic merits were the sole topic of conversation in musical circles, and the arrival of a young foreign composer made little immediate impression. Luckily, or so it seemed at the time, Mozart discovered that several of his musical acquaintances from Mannheim had also come to Paris. Virtuosos all, they asked Mozart if he would compose a major work for them to play together at the ‘Concerts Spirituels’ and the young composer was pleased to oblige. Mozart completed the Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat in a very few days, as was his practice, and the work was scheduled for performance in late April. Parisian artistic politics soon came into play however, as the score was mysteriously appropriated just before the performance. The work remained unheard. The cruel trick enraged the Mannheimers, who had lost their chance to make an impression, but Mozart, showing rather more emotional maturity than he is usually given credit for, wrote, “It is a good sign to have enemies.”
The original manuscript remains lost, but a transcription more or less of the period, for slightly different instruments (clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon instead of flute, oboe, horn and bassoon) remains. The three movements are striking both for their melodic breadth and for their sheer technical proficiency. The first movement, marked Allegro, is structured around two principal themes; the first declamatory in nature and the second filled with a suave elegance. The solo instruments play both separately and as a wind choir, offering the greatest possible variation in colour and timbre within the reticulation of the work at large. The second movement, marked Adagio, is the lyrical heart of the piece. The four winds work here as individuals, weaving in and out of the texture of the movement with an especial grace. The Finale is both simple in concept and honest in its execution. A series of ten variations based on a sprightly little tune, the music offers each of the soloists in turn an opportunity to shine brightly within a democratic framework. Charming!
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The five years of the First World War were a dramatic time in the life of Igor Stravinsky, not from the personal effects of war itself (Stravinsky lived in Switzerland), but from the effects war had on his creative environment. Basically, all of the resources that were the root of his inspiration disappeared. The dissolution of the Russian Ballet at the outbreak of war had left Stravinsky without any major commissions to fulfill, and the events unfolding in Russia had denied him access to his own country. As the tragedy of the time went on around him, Stravinsky settled down to evolve a new style of composition.
The artistic world returned quickly to a semblance of normalcy when the war finally ended. The Russian Ballet reformed as early as the summer of 1918, thanks to the organizational skills of its manager, Diaghilev, and embarked on a long tour using two of Stravinsky’s ballets.
In 1919, Diaghilev decided that the Russian Ballet needed a new work, and he turned to Stravinsky. Knowing that Stravinsky was not using the same musical language as he had done before the war, Diaghilev presented him with something quite unexpected. “I want you to look at some delightful eighteenth century music with the idea of orchestrating it for ballet.” Stravinsky was startled, then enraged when he found that the music was by Pergolesi, a minor Italian composer for whom he felt no respect. Diaghilev somehow convinced him to at least give the music a try, and the rest, as they say, is history. Stravinsky fell quite under Pergolesi’s spell, and produced a subtly delicate ballet score in record time.
Now it was Diaghilev’s turn to be startled and enraged. Wanting nothing more than a stylish orchestration for some pretty melodies, he was disturbed by both the sparseness of the instrumentation and by the satirical undercurrent running through the whole work. Stravinsky later said that Diaghilev “…went about for a long time with a look that suggested The Offended Eighteenth Century”.
In fact, very little of Pergolesi’s music was changed. Stravinsky kept the melodic and bass lines unaltered. The symmetry of Pergolesi’s writing is occasionally broken up by the repetition or distortion of certain phases, while the harmony is thrown out of focus through the use of ostinati and late progressions. The orchestration is very skilful indeed. Each movement calls for a different combination of instruments, using the “concertante” groupings with great effect, not only in the strings, but in the woodwinds and brass as well. Large orchestral effects are completely eschewed, but astonishing results have been produced by the use of dry instrumental voices to bring out the inner structure of each movement.
The concert suite of Pulcinella is very close to the original ballet. Certain voicings have been changed, but the size and spirit of the work remain the same.
The suite is in eleven movements: a Sinfonia, Serenata, Scherizino, Allegro, Andantino, Tarantella, Toccata, Gavotta con due variazioni, Duetto, Minuetto and a Finale.
Holberg Suite (Suite in olden style)
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Already celebrated as a great composer throughout the world and as a national hero in his native Norway, Grieg felt honoured when the corporation of the city of Bergen approached him with a request for a celebratory work that would mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bergen-born philosopher, Ludvig Holberg. Grieg was somewhat taken aback by their expressing to him that a grand outdoor cantata would be ideal for a winter performance in the town square and decided that a suite for strings would be much more practicable and that a piano suite that had already proven to be popular could be orchestrated easily. The Suite in olden style was duly performed with Grieg conducting in the town square in December, 1884.
The Suite in olden style is in five movements. Using baroque forms and structures it hearkens back to the days of Ludvig Holberg while making use of Grieg’s gift for melody. The Praeludium first movement sets the tone for the work as a whole, being brisk and cheery. The Sarabande is altogether much more peaceful in nature and leads thematically to the aristocratic Gavotte. The Air is wonderfully calm with a particularly lovely theme and the final Rigaudon hearkens back to the first movement with echoes of a village fiddler.