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PROGRAM NOTES: SDYS Chamber Orchestra with Richard O’Neill, viola

by Eric Bromberger

Ritual Fire Dance from El amor brujo


Born November 23, 1876, Cádiz, Spain

Died November 14, 1946, Alta Gracia, Argentina

Approximate Duration: 4 minutes

Falla went to Paris to study in 1907 and remained there for seven years, but with the outbreak of World War I he returned to Madrid and–not surprisingly–wished to write something specifically Spanish. Through his friend Martinez Sierra, he met the Andalusian singer-dancer Pastora Imperio, and from her mother, the gypsy Rosario la Mejorana, they heard the old Andalusian gypsy tale that became the basis for a ballet entitled El amor brujo. Sierra adapted a scenario, and Falla composed the music between November 1914 and April 1915, when it was premièred in Madrid.

El amor brujo tells of the young gypsy woman Candelas who loved a passionate but dissolute gypsy, now dead. Candelas is being pursued by the handsome Carmelo, but she is haunted by the ghost of her former lover: whenever she and Carmelo are about to exchange “the perfect kiss” that will symbolize their love, the ghost appears and prevents it. Carmelo devises a plan: remembering the dead gypsy’s fondness for all beautiful young women, he asks his friend Lucia to accompany them. The ghost appears and begins to flirt with Lucia, freeing Candelas and Carmelo to exchange “the perfect kiss.” Vanquished, the ghost disappears forever and triumphant bells ring out.

The Ritual Fire Dance depicts Candelas’ final attempt to exorcise the demon of the gypsy. Midnight arrives on its twelve quiet strokes, and now Candelas dances this “fire” dance in the effort to banish the spirit of her dead lover. Swirling trills over a walking bass line lead to the famous main theme of this dance, with its characteristic triplets; the dance grows increasingly animated and ends brilliantly. Though the Ritual Fire Dance fails to chase off the dissolute ghost, it has become famous on its own and has been heard in many arrangements (it was one of Arthur Rubinstein’s most successful encore pieces).

Sinfonia for Viola and String Orchestra (arr. by Alexander Tchaikovsky of
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Minor, Opus 138)


Born September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg

Died August 9, 1975, Moscow

Approximate Duration: 20 minutes

In 1923, four young string players at the Moscow Conservatory formed a quartet that would eventually become known as the Beethoven Quartet, and they quickly became good friends with the star composition student at the rival St. Petersburg Conservatory, Dmitri Shostakovich. The Beethoven Quartet’s close relation with the composer would last for over half a century, and they gave the premières of thirteen of his quartets (all but the first and last). By the late 1960s, however, the effect of time was becoming all too clear: Shostakovich suffered from debilitating illness over the final decade of his life, and the quartet lost two of its original members–second violinist Vasily Shirinsky died and violist Vadim Borisovsky retired. As a gesture of lifelong respect and gratitude, Shostakovich dedicated each of his String Quartets Nos. 11 through 14 to a different member of the quartet. He composed the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Minor during the summer of 1970, completing it on August 10, and dedicated it to violist Borisovsky on the occasion of his seventieth birthday (Borisovsky had at that point already retired from the quartet). With its new members, the Beethoven Quartet gave the quartet several private hearings before the official première on December 13, 1970, in Leningrad.

The Thirteenth Quartet is heard at this concert in an arrangement for solo viola and string orchestra made by the Russian composer Alexander Tchaikovsky (born 1946). In this arrangement, titled Sinfonia for Viola and String Orchestra, Tchaikovsky transforms the quartet into a sort of concerto for viola and string orchestra by assigning to the solo viola the quartet’s leading melodic line, whether it was for the two violins, the viola, or the cello in the original. The effect is to re-cast Shostakovich’s quartet in a way that gives the viola a concerto-like solo part and enriches the overall sound of the original.

This music may have been written to commemorate a birthday, but there is nothing festive about it. It’s one movement is in a broad ternary form: the opening Adagio gives way to a long central episode at twice that tempo before the final section returns to the opening tempo.

Set in the dark key of B-flat minor, the Sinfonia opens with a spare viola solo marked espressivo. Gradually the other voices enter, the music rises to a dissonant outburst, and the opening section gives way to the central section, marked Doppio movimento and announced by chirping threenote patterns. These patterns of three-note attacks gradually build to a strident climax in which three-note patterns are hammered out by the entire ensemble. Then the music launches into an eerie dance that skitters along triplet rhythms and is punctuated by the sound of the players tapping their bows on their instruments. This unsettled music–wild in its hard-edged energy and strange sounds–is the most Bartókian moment in the entire cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets.

Gradually this dance winds down, and ominous trills and a recall of the three-note patterns lead to a return to the opening tempo. But now that opening music has become even darker. In the course of this closing section, for which Shostakovich mutes all the instruments, there is a long duet– murmuring and subdued–for viola and cellos, and then the cellos vanish. The final word is left to the viola, whose bleak soliloquy (sometimes set at the extreme upper limit of that instrument’s range) leads to the jolting cadence: on its final note, the viola is rejoined by the (unmuted) violins, and these instruments shriek out the concluding B-flat.

Clair de lune (orch. André Caplet)


Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Died March 25, 1918, Paris

Approximate Duration: 5 minutes

Clair de lune, Debussy’s seductive invitation into a world of moonlit possibility, has become one of his most famous compositions, so it may come as a surprise to learn that in its earliest version this music had nothing at all to do with moonlight. Debussy originally composed it around 1890 under the title Promenade sentimentale, and the 28-year-old composer intended it as one of the movements of a suite of pieces for piano. Debussy sketched that suite in 1890, but he was in no hurry to finish it–not until fifteen years later, in 1905, did he come back to these pieces, revise them, and publish the set under the title Suite bergamasque.

But there had been some important changes along the way. The movement originally titled Promenade sentimentale now had a new name, Clair de lune, which Debussy had taken from the title of a poem by Paul Verlaine. Verlaine (1844-1896) is remembered as one of the symbolist poets, that school of poetry centered in France at the end of the nineteenth century that reacted against realism and in favor of an exploration of the internal consciousness–a setting suffused with the half tones of soft moonlight was perfect for that imagination.

Debussy’s Clair de lune fully deserves its popularity. No matter how over-familiar this music may have become, Debussy’s fluid rhythms, haunting melodies, and muted, silvery colors continue to work their hold on listeners (and performers). Clair de lune has been arranged for many different instrumental combinations, and arrangements for orchestra offer a palette of sound that can evoke the subtle textures of Debussy’s music more fully than a solo piano. Clair de lune is heard at this concert in an orchestration by the French composer André Caplet (1878-1925), who is best-remembered today for his arrangements of Debussy’s piano pieces.

Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K.297 “Paris”


Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg

Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

Approximate Duration: 20 minutes

In the years 1777-78 Mozart and his mother set out on a long trip through the musical capitals of Europe in search of a position for the young man. Mozart found no position, but the trip did let him hear the two finest orchestras in Europe: those of Mannheim and Paris. He was very impressed by the Mannheim orchestra, renowned for its virtuosity and long crescendos, but he was distinctly less impressed with the situation in Paris, where he found the orchestra subpar and the audiences shallow. The Paris orchestra was famous for its unison attacks, called there coup d’archet, but Mozart was underwhelmed. To his father back in Salzburg, he wrote: “The oxen here make such a fuss of this!–the devil!–they all begin together–just like in other places.” In Paris, Mozart was asked by Joseph LeGros, director of the Concerts Spirituels, to write a symphony, and early in June 1778 he composed a symphony tailored specifically for Paris. He wrote for the large Paris orchestra, which meant a full complement of winds (including the first appearance of clarinets in a Mozart symphony); he left out the minuet movement typical only of the Viennese symphony; and he tried to appeal to current Parisian fashions. This is most evident in Mozart’s conscious use of the coup d’archet: the first movement opens with a massive attack for full orchestra and then a brisk run up the D-major scale. This flourish, clearly aimed at Parisian taste, returns at key points throughout the movement. Scholars have noted the influence of the baroque concerto on this movement, which features themes tossed between strings and solo winds, but there is also a touch of Mannheim influence in the long crescendos. In a letter to his father, Mozart made clear just how consciously he was trying to please his audience: “Right in the middle of the first Allegro, there was a passage that I knew must please, all the hearers were quite carried away and there was a great burst of applause–but I had known, when I wrote it, what kind of effect it would make, so I brought it back again at the close–when there were shouts of Da capo.”

While the audience liked the slow movement at the première, LeGros did not and asked Mozart to rewrite it for a second performance of the symphony in August. This Mozart did, and the movement exists in two versions–as an Andantino in 6/8 and as an Andante in 3/4–but the problem now is that no one knows which is the original and which is the replacement! At the present concert, the Andantino is performed. This is songful and elegant music, and while Mozart introduces a second subject, he does not develop either of his main ideas. The scoring is somewhat unusual: after the huge orchestral effects of the first movement, Mozart uses the winds very sparingly here, and most of the thematic interest is in the strings.

The concluding Allegro returns to the manner of the opening movement and is notable for its virtuosity and brilliant effects, which include some accomplished fugal writing in the development. For the best description of this music, though, we should turn to the composer himself, who wrote to his father after the première: “as I had heard that all the last Allegros here, like the first, begin with all the instruments together, usually in unison, I began mine with the two violins alone, piano for the first eight bars–after which came a forte–this made the audience, as I expected, say ‘Ssh’ at the piano–and then came the forte–when they heard the forte they at once began to clap their hands–I went as soon as
the symphony was over to the Palais Royal–I had a large ice–and I said the Rosary as I had vowed.”

On a final note, Mozart may have sneered at French tastes and consciously catered to them, but this does not mean that he undervalued this music. On the contrary: he took this symphony with him when he moved to Vienna in 1781 and performed it there several times, something he rarely did with his “old” music.