Work composed: 1950–51
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, and strings
Estimated duration: 11 minutes
“In 1945, the Polish music publishing company PWM – which had just been established – asked me to compose a series of easy pieces based on Polish folk song and dance themes,” Witold Lutosławski recalled in an interview from the 1950s.“I readily accepted this proposition and began for the first time to introduce elements of folk music into my work . . . The series of ‘functional’ pieces which I wrote based on folk themes gave me the possibility of developing a style which, though narrow and limited, was nevertheless characteristic enough.”
The Little Suite is among Lutosławski’s works inspired by or otherwise highlighting Polish folk melodies. It was composed for the Warsaw Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Grzegorz Fitelberg, which premiered it on Polish radio on April 20, 1951, and its four movements feature melodies from the village of Machów in southeastern Poland. To accompany the unadorned tunes, Lutosławski added distinctly modernist harmonies. This pairing of 20th-century and traditional music results in an interesting hybrid folk-modernist sound, similar to Benjamin Britten’s pairing of 20th-century harmonies with English folk songs. Fujarka (Fife) spotlights the piccolo sounding a cheerful lilting melody, to which the orchestra responds with a heavy pulsing rhythm. The Hurra (Hurrah!) Polka whirls with merriment at high speed, while the gentle Piosenka (Song), which borrows its melody from the folk song “Light the Ashes for Me,” meanders like a lazy stream on a hot summer afternoon. In the closing Taniec (Dance), playful brasses and winds present the lively opening melody of a lasowiak (forest dance), while strings and later full orchestra respond with a majestic counter-theme.
Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47
Work composed: 1904, rev. 1905
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: May 19, 2014; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 31minutes
“The violin took me by storm,” Jean Sibelius wrote in his diary, “and for the next ten years it was my dearest wish, my overriding ambition, to become a great virtuoso.” Unfortunately, Sibelius never attained great facility on the violin, despite great effort. He began studying the instrument relatively late, at age 14; he was also limited by a lack of first-rate teachers in Finland. Sibelius’ Violin Concerto is a kind of melancholic farewell to that childhood dream, and the bitterness of that failure spilled over into the writing of the concerto itself. Sibelius had promised it to violinist Willy Burmeister, concertmaster of the Helsinki Orchestra during the 1890s, and a longtime fan of Sibelius’ music. However, Sibelius made it impossible for Burmeister to play the premiere because Sibelius insisted on a premiere concert date in November 1903, even though Burmeister was not available at that time. Although he refused to move the date of the premiere, Sibelius tried to placate Burmeister with the promise of future performances. “When you come in March you will launch it . . . I’m so grateful that you will do it in so many places.”
Sibelius finished the first version of this concerto in the autumn of 1903 and sent the score to Burmeister, who loved the work: “I can only say one thing: wonderful! Masterly! Only once before have I spoken in such terms to a composer, and that was when Tchaikovsky showed me his concerto.” On February 8, 1904, Sibelius led the Helsinki Philharmonic in the premiere, with soloist Victor Nováček, a mediocre violinist completely unequal to the demands of the music. After this lackluster debut, Sibelius revised the work and Burmeister again offered to play it. “All of my twenty-five years’ stage experience, my artistry and insight will be at the service of this work,” he wrote to Sibelius. “I shall play the concerto in Helsinki in such a way that the city will be at your feet.” However, Sibelius’ German publisher wanted another violinist, Karl Halir, the concertmaster in Berlin, to undertake the solo part. Sibelius agreed, although with some twinges of conscience over his now twice-broken promise to Burmeister. Burmeister was understandably outraged and vowed never to play the work himself, a promise he kept. The 1905 revised version heard in these concerts was first conducted by Richard Strauss, who led the Berlin Philharmonic and Halir on October 19, 1905.
The Violin Concerto is one of Sibelius’ more accessible and straightforward works, as compared with the complex unfolding structures of his symphonies. Its three movements showcase the violin’s lush rhapsodic qualities, particularly the intimate second movement. In the finale, the soloist plays much of the time in the violin’s highest range, as violin and orchestra pass the primary theme, a strong march-like tune, back and forth between them.
The Deutsche Zeitung likened the concerto’s colors to those used by “the Nordic winter landscape painters who through the distinctive interplay of white on white, secure rare, sometimes hypnotic and sometimes powerful effects.” American critic Olin Downes, an early admirer of Sibelius, described the work as “bardic songs heard against a background of torches or pagan fires in some wild Northern night.”
Work composed: 1986
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: string orchestra
Estimated duration: 9 minutes
“Orawa is the only piece in which I wouldn’t change a single note, though I have looked at it many times . . . What is achieved in it is what I strive for – to be the best possible Kilar.” – Wojciech Kilar
The music of 20th-century Polish composer Wojciech Kilar straddles two worlds: the concert hall and the movie theatre. Other composers have written music for both venues, but most are known better for one genre than the other. Kilar was the rare composer whose music has achieved renown in both arenas. Fans of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, starring Gary Oldman in the title role, already know Kilar’s sound, and he also wrote music for several of Roman Polanski’s films, including The Pianist (2002), The Ninth Gate (1999), and Death and the Maiden (1994). Altogether, Kilar scored or contributed music to more than 150 films and TV shows. Kilar began writing film music in the late 1950s, just a few years after his earliest concert works. Over the next 50 years, along with his film and television work, Kilar also composed a number of orchestral, chamber, choral, solo, and concerted pieces.
Kilar’s style tends toward minimalism; he repeats melodic and/or rhythmic patterns, while layering different textures, timbres, and/or changing dynamics over them. Polish folk music, particularly the music of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland, which many Poles regard as a spiritual place, also features prominently in Kilar’s sound.
Orawa, Kilar’s best-known and most-performed concert piece, combines both elements. The title, says Kilar scholar Andrzej Chtopecki, refers to “a slope in the Podhale region of the Tatra Mountains where the grass has been scythed. When the grazing season is over, the remaining grass is cut down and the slope, thus prepared, becomes a place for celebrating the end of the shepherd’s work with music and dancing.” The simple open harmonies and pulsing modo perpetuo rhythmic patterns combine with slowly building dynamics and textures to create a wild, joyful celebration of the harvest.
Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70
Work composed: 1945
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: April 5, 2004; Alexander Lazarev, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, side drum, snare drum, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, celesta, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 27 minutes
“Musicians will love to play it and critics will delight in blasting it.” – Dmitri Shostakovich on his Ninth Symphony
As a group, composers indulge in their share of superstitious or magical thinking. For example, since Beethoven’s death in 1827, many composers have avoided writing or naming a large orchestral work “Ninth Symphony,” for fear of comparison with Beethoven’s. Other composers, including Mahler, feared that a ninth symphony would foreshadow or even somehow cause death, as was the case for Beethoven, Anton Bruckner, and Antonín Dvořák, among others.
To some extent, Dmitri Shostakovich also subscribed to this view. During the spring of 1945, he admitted to a friend that he was bothered by the number of his current symphony, which, in the words of biographer Laurel Fay, “was inducing in many the temptation to compare it with Beethoven’s Ninth.” When Shostakovich began working on his Ninth Symphony, he planned a large-scale, ambitious work whose epigraph would be “Victory,” for chorus, soloists, and orchestra – “if I can find suitable material . . . and if I were not afraid that I might be suspected of wanting to draw immodest analogies.” These concerns grew to the point that Shostakovich stopped work entirely on the symphony for several months; when he returned to it, in August 1945, it was an entirely different piece of music. Gone was the high-minded victory celebration, including the grand design and vocal elements. Instead, the Ninth Symphony, despite its five movements, became Shostakovich’s shortest, at approximately 27 minutes.
The symphony’s brevity is just one aspect of its unexpectedness. Written just months after the end of World War II, everyone expected Shostakovich to compose what Fay calls “a monumental symphonic apotheosis,” which would celebrate the Red Army’s heroic victory over fascism. Instead, Shostakovich gave voice to his own personal feelings of joy upon the end of the war. The Ninth does celebrate victory, but not in the bombastic public manner of a military parade; instead, it is an individual expression meant, as Roy Blokker notes, “to celebrate life and those things within the human spirit” which the war had taken away.
Leonard Bernstein added, “He [Shostakovich] simply wrote the least predictable and most surprising Ninth that exists: short, hilarious, circus-ey, an all-out fiesta gleefully proclaiming, ‘Hooray, the war’s over!’ In short, Shostakovich thumbed his nose at the great tradition of Ninths, although he was perfectly capable of writing colossal symphonies.”
Fans of Shostakovich who expect to hear biting irony and bitter exclamations typical of his other symphonies may be surprised by the lighthearted Allegro. Like a child skipping down a path, this music, particularly the piccolo’s solos and the peremptory comments of the trombone, bubbles with mirth and unbridled fun. The Moderato features plaintive, simple solos, duets, and trios for clarinet and other winds, which begin in D minor and gradually shift to a sunnier D major. Strings hint at darker realms, but the winds’ music ultimately prevails. The last three movements, played without pause, begin with a quicksilver Scherzo. As before, the winds begin, but strings and brasses soon take over, and the moto perpetuo rhythm propels the off-kilter music forward. The Largo begins abruptly, with a heart-stopping exclamation from the lower brasses. A bassoon solo, full of soul-ache, alternates with ominous brasses, which conjure up the grim fog of war. The closing Allegretto also begins with a bassoon solo, livelier than before. Soon the music emerges from the darkness, as strings and winds begin a game of chase, which grows into a rowdy march, which roars to a cheerful conclusion.
When Evgeny Mravinsky led the Leningrad Philharmonic in the premiere on November 3, 1945, the audience demanded an encore of the final three movements. Early reviews were largely favorable, but some, who had expected a more nationalistic expression of self-congratulatory pride, condemned it as “grotesque” and “trifling.”
Roy Blokker writes, “Musically, the Ninth is a delightful and much-needed interlude of frolic … [but] it is easy to understand why the Soviet political machine, preoccupied with its business of clearing up after the war and anxious to launch into a programme of rebuilding the state for the future, found little time to laugh and had little patience with those who did.”
© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com