Oregon Symphony

 

Mahler Symphony No. 4

Karina Gauvin
Saturday, May 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 10 at 7:30 p.m.
Monday, May 11 at 8 p.m.
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Karina Gauvin, soprano


ERIK SATIE
(ORCH. DEBUSSY)
Gymnopédies
  • Slow and solemn
  • Slow and mournful

SAMUEL BARBER

Intermission


GUSTAV MAHLER
Symphony No. 4 in G major
  • Deliberately, do not hurry
  • In easy motion, without haste
  • Serene
  • Very leisurely

ERIK SATIE
Gymnopédies Nos. 3 & 1

THE VITAL STATS:

Composer born
May 17, 1866, Honfleur, France

Died
July 1, 1925, Paris

Work composed
The three Gymnopédies were written for solo piano in 1888; Debussy orchestrated Nos. 1 and 3 between 1893 and 1896. Satie dedicated No. 1 “à Mademoiselle Jeanne de Bret,” and No. 3 to Charles Levadé.

World premiere
Debussy’s orchestrated versions premiered on Feb. 20 1897. Gustave Doret conducted an orchestra at the Salle Érard, under the auspices of the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris.

Oregon Symphony premiere
Feb. 7, 1966, with Jacques Singer conducting

Most recent Oregon Symphony performances
At the Feb. 7-8, 1966, concerts

Instrumentation
2 flutes, oboe, 4 horns, cymbals, harp and strings

Estimated duration
7 minutes

Erik Satie’s eccentricities and audaciousness earned him both admiration and denunciation. Composer Darius Milhaud paid him tribute when he said, “Developments since 1900 owe the same debt to the Gymnopédies as those since 1920 owe to [Satie’s ballet] Parade.” Georges Auric added, “Always written without reference to the prevailing taste and style of the day and its fashions, Satie’s works have, in reality, anticipated those tastes and styles and fashions with the most astonishing precision.” In contrast, the influential music critic Henry Gauthier-Villars described Satie as “a charlatan, a loony and a complete idiot”; these and other harsh comments between Satie and Gauthier-Villars eventually led to a fistfight between the two men.

Satie wrote his three Gymnopédies for solo piano early in 1888 and published them later that year. The title refers to an ancient Spartan festival, the gymnopaedia, in which men and boys danced around statues of the gods (whether the participants were naked or simply unarmed is unclear). The music is, in the words of Satie biographer Stephen Moore Whiting, “both distinctive and easily grasped.” Their dreamlike modal melodies drift over gently rocking bass lines, sounding both timeless and modern, especially in their avoidance of traditional harmonies and lack of forward motion.

The Gymnopédies are some of Satie’s most recognizable works, thanks to the efforts of Claude Debussy. The two men were friends and mutual admirers of each other’s music, and Debussy, whose influence was substantial, orchestrated two of the Gymnopédies for performance at the Société Nationale. Gauthier-Villars spared nothing in his critique: “To make performable the music of that mystical sausage-brain, it does not suffice to have it orchestrated by a composer of talent; someone else would also have to rewrite the melody. And even that would be worthless.”

 

SAMUEL BARBER
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24

THE VITAL STATS:

Composer born
Mar. 9, 1910, West Chester, PA

Died
Jan. 23, 1981, New York City

Work composed
1947, completed on Apr. 4 of that year, for conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who had asked Barber for a symphonic work with voice. Formally commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber. Three years later, Barber made a version for chamber orchestra. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is dedicated “in memory of my father.”

World premiere
Apr. 9, 1948, with Steber and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Koussevitzky. Eileen Farrell and a chamber orchestra conducted by William Strickland premiered the chamber orchestra version on Apr. 1, 1950 in Washington.

Oregon Symphony premiere
Mar. 9, 1976, with Lawrence Smith conducting; Marilyn Kinkaid, soprano

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance
June 6, 1984, with James DePreist conducting; Bonnie Hensley, soprano

Instrumentation
High voice, flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, triangle, harp and strings

Estimated duration
14 minutes

James Agee’s evocation of his Southern childhood unfolds as languidly and naturally as the summer evening he describes. The writing itself has a deliberate stream-of-consciousness quality that does not call undue attention to itself. Agee explained that he wrote his memoir in a manner designed to emulate the improvisations of jazz music, “to a certain kind of ‘genuine’ lyric which I thought should be purely improvised without drafts and revisions.” The resulting prose poem is both profound and elegiac; Agee later used it as the prologue to his novel, A Death in the Family.

When Samuel Barber encountered Knoxville: Summer of 1915 in an anthology of writings from the Partisan Review, he responded immediately to the connections between Agee’s childhood and his own:  “I found out, after setting this, that Mr. Agee and I are the same age, and the year he described was 1915 when we were both five,” Barber explained. “You see, it expresses a child’s feelings of loneliness, wonder and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.”

Barber and Agee met after Barber finished setting Knoxville, and the two men discovered other similarities in their lives: “We both had back yards where our families used to lie in the long summer evenings, we each had an aunt who was a musician … Agee’s poem was vivid and moved me deeply, and my musical response that summer of 1947 was immediate and intense. I think I must have composed Knoxville within a few days.” Both Barber’s aunt, Louise Homer, and his father, Roy, were gravely ill at the time Barber composed Knoxville; Louise died in May 1947 and Barber’s father three months later.

Barber’s setting of Agee’s text follows the author’s narrative closely but not exactly. Most significantly, Barber reset the words in a quasi-poetic format, which shaped his musical phrases and furnished a formal structure for Agee’s words. Through Barber’s setting, the words take on rhythmic and dramatic qualities not inherent in Agee’s prose. As with all his songs, Barber’s attentiveness to prosody and the natural inflections of speech give the words a conversational, relaxed quality. The orchestra depicts the clanging streetcar, the rumbling of horses’ hooves, and the gentle whish of the lawn sprinkler in the summer night.

 

GUSTAV MAHLER
Symphony No. 4 in G major

THE VITAL STATS:

Composer born
July 7, 1860, Kalischt, [now Kaliště, Jihlava, in the Czech Republic], Bohemia

Died
May 18, 1911, Vienna

Work composed
The final movement was originally written as a song with piano accompaniment in February 1892. Mahler composed the other three movements between June 1899 and April 1901 and made several revisions to the orchestration in the years that followed.

World premiere
Mahler conducted the Kaim Orchestra of Munich on Nov. 25, 1901, with soprano soloist Margarete Michalek.

Oregon Symphony premiere
Jan. 14, 1957, with Theodore Bloomfield conducting; Brunetta Mazzolini, soprano

Most recent Oregon Symphony performances
Dec. 1-3, 2001, with Tadaaki Otaka conducting; Frances Lucey, soprano

Instrumentation
Soprano, 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, sleigh bells, triangle, harp and strings

Estimated duration
55 minutes

All of Mahler’s symphonies are distinct sound worlds, and each has a specific premise or subtext. Of the Fourth Symphony, Mahler told a friend, “I only wanted to write a symphonic Humoresque, and out of it came a symphony of normal dimensions.” What Mahler meant by “normal dimensions” isn’t clear, but the Fourth Symphony, which explores the world of childhood, is known as Mahler’s most accessible (and one of his shortest, at just under one hour). Considering its accessibility, it is interesting to note that Mahler also described the Fourth Symphony in a letter as “fundamentally different from my other symphonies.”

The first three movements are built around and culminate with the fourth, a setting of a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), a collection of poems gathered, arranged and otherwise tinkered with by the poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in the early 1800s. Mahler set a number of these poems in the 1890s; among them was the poem Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen (Heaven Is Hung With Violins), which Mahler renamed Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life). It is a child’s concept of heaven: full of music, dancing and other innocent pleasure, as well as a feast of delicious foods. Various saints people heaven, including Peter, Martha, Ursula and Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

The Fourth Symphony is the last of Mahler’s Wunderhorn Symphonies (he used melodies from his settings of other songs in each of his three previous symphonies), and, with the exception of the finale, the most obviously Classical. The first movement is in traditional sonata-allegro form, the second movement is a Scherzo, while the third is a theme and variations. Mahler’s orchestration is delicately buoyant, with an emphasis on higher range instruments (suggesting children’s voices), minus trombones and tuba. The sleigh bells, which ring in the opening of the symphony, tinkle throughout the first movement, with their suggestions of winter and Christmas. The solo violin serves as a musical narrator, taking on different characters and qualities in each movement.

“Life in heaven is the tapering spire of the edifice of this Fourth Symphony,” said Mahler. He also expressed the hope that the Fourth Symphony would “bring me the only reward which I want from my work: to be heard and understood.” Unfortunately, Mahler’s critics were all too ready to attack the Fourth Symphony for what they perceived as its artificial naïveté and homage to sunny childhood memories. Mahler-as-sunny-optimist clearly didn’t conform to what critics and audiences expected from the death-obsessed composer of the Resurrection Symphony. In a letter to Julius Buths in 1903, Mahler lamented the negative reaction to the Fourth Symphony, describing it as “this persecuted step-child that has so far known so little joy in the world.”

 

© 2009 Elizabeth Schwartz

Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a Portland-based writer and musician. In addition to serving as the Oregon Symphony’s program annotator, she has contributed to the nationally broadcast radio program Performance Today. Schwartz holds music degrees from the University of California and Boston University. E-mail: schwartzelizabeth@yahoo.com.

Recommended Recordings by Michael Parsons

Satie: Gymnopédies (Orch. Debussy)
Leonard Slatkin-St. Louis Symphony
Telarc 80059

Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Karina Gauvin-Soprano
Marin Alsop-Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Naxos 8559134   OR
Dawn Upshaw-Soprano
David Zinman-Orchestra of St. Luke's
Nonesuch 79187

Mahler: Symphony No. 4
Karina Gauvin-Soprano
Yannick Nezet-Seguin: Grand Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra
Atma 22306  OR
Christine Schafer-Soprano
Bernard Haitink-Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
RCO Live 7003

These selected recordings are available at Classical Millennium, located at 3144 E. Burnside in Portland.

 

 

 


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