Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43
Work composed: 1801
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 31, 2005; Yakov Kreizberg, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 5 minutes
Aside from his opera Fidelio and incidental music for a few plays, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote virtually nothing for the stage. The Creatures of Prometheus is Beethoven’s only ballet; his fights with its egotistical choreographer Salvatore Viganò effectively squelched any future interest he might have had in the genre. Today, the ballet is rarely performed, while the Overture survives as an orchestral work.
Beethoven was drawn to the ballet’s central figure, the Titan Prometheus. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus defied the gods by bringing literacy and the arts to humanity, as well as the element of fire. Such a heroic symbol appealed to Beethoven, who saw in Prometheus qualities of his own personality: native rebelliousness, idealism, and an inclination to heroic sacrifice. (Zeus punished Prometheus for his arrogance by chaining him to Mt. Olympus and causing a vulture to tear out his liver; each day the liver was magically renewed so the voracious raptor could continue feasting. Prometheus endured this punishment until Hercules scaled the mountain and killed the vulture).
Viganò wanted to showcase his own skills and those of his ballerina wife. Accordingly, Viganò outlined a plot in which Prometheus becomes a peripheral generic “creator.” Two of his “creatures” (statues portrayed by Viganò and his wife) come to life and are given consciousness and enlightenment by the god Apollo. The two statues become the focus, while Prometheus himself is largely ignored.
For Beethoven, whose only interest in the ballet lay in Prometheus’ story, creating a musical vehicle for Viganò and his wife to parade their talents was a musical slap in the face. Beethoven and Viganò could not reconcile their artistic differences, which may explain the ballet’s lack of success.
The overture opens with several chords full of anticipatory tension, followed by a slow introduction. The music shifts without pause to a lively Allegro, which some suggest represents Prometheus’ flight from Mt. Olympus after stealing fire from the gods.
Pattern of the Rail: Six Orchestral Songs from Book of Travelers
“Empire Liquor Mart” from The Ambassador
Work(s) composed: 2016–19(Book of Travelers); 2014 (“Empire Liquor Mart”)
First Oregon Symphony performance
Pattern of the Rail: solo tenor, solo piano, piccolo (doubling alto flute), 2 flutes (both doubling alto flute), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, almglocken, bass drum, crash cymbal, crotales, 2 cymbals, glockenspiel, gong, guiro, kick drum, knives, marimba, piccolo snare, slapstick, snare drum, splash cymbal, temple blocks, tom toms, tubular bells, vibraphone, wood blocks, xylophone, celesta, harp, and strings
“Empire Liquor Mart”: solo tenor, solo piano, solo guitar, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, crotales, hi hat, high shaker, kick drum, knives, low shaker, maracas, marimba, slapstick, snare drum, temple blocks, triangle, wood block, xylophone, celesta, and strings
Estimated duration: 25 minutes (Book of Travelers); 10 minutes (“Empire Liquor Mart”)
Gabriel Kahane combines incisive lyrics, versatile musical language, and an unflinching willingness to explore uncomfortable societal realities. Oregon Symphony audiences first experienced Kahane’s distinctive blend of classical, pop, and social justice in the spring of 2018 with the world premiere of emergency shelter intake form. This contemporary oratorio about systemic inequality traces the dual crises of homelessness and a nation-wide lack of affordable housing.
In August 2018, Kahane released the album Book of Travelers. “The morning after the 2016 presidential election, I packed a suitcase and boarded Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited bound for Chicago,” Kahane writes. “Over the next thirteen days, I talked to dozens of strangers whom I met, primarily, in dining cars aboard the six trains that would carry me some 8,980 miles around the country. The songs on this album are intended as a kind of loose diary of that journey, and as a portrait of America at a time of profound national turbulence.”
For these concerts, Kahane orchestrated six of Book’s songs into a suite, Pattern of the Rail. Book of Travelers won praise for its spare sound, created by Kahane singing and accompanying himself on piano. In these new orchestral versions, Kahane had to preserve the lyrics’ centrality, while the accompaniments could make use of the orchestra’s full palette of colors and textures.
“Baedeker,” named for the once-ubiquitous guidebooks for wealthy tourists visiting abroad, contemplates the beneficial and also limiting nature of traveling with a guide. “Baltimore,” one of the most stark and elegant songs, combines the optimism of FDR’s New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps with bleak present-day realities of urban life. A devout Christian mother mourns the death of her opioid-addicted son in “Friends of Friends of Bill”; a well-to-do African-American woman explains her reason for taking the train South: “My two grown sons were afraid/me driving through the night on a stretch of farm-stand highway in Mississippi/’Cause they don’t need a hood or a cross or a tree.” Kahane tells part of his own family’s journey in “October 1, 1939/Port of Hamburg.” Kahane’s grandmother kept a diary as she fled Nazi Germany and traveled to the United States as a refugee. “They weren’t allowed to dock/All because the country didn’t want/to let these people through./Ain’t that a familiar tune?/I have to sing it back to you.”
“9127 South Figueroa (Empire Liquor Mart)” comes from Kahane’s 2012 album, The Ambassador, which takes its name and concept from 10 buildings in Los Angeles. In the liner notes, Kahane writes, “On March 16, 1991–13 days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King – a 15-year-old African American girl named Latasha Harlins walked into the Empire Liquor Market at 9127 South Figueroa St. in South Central Los Angeles. This is what I know of her story.” Kahane’s lyrics are written from Latasha’s point of view, which gives lasting immediacy to events that happened almost 30 years ago.
As a storyteller whose medium is song, Kahane’s first and most essential tool is compassion for his protagonists. In an NPR interview, Kahane described Book of Travelers as “a plea for empathy.” “I think songwriting is a way to deliver that message,” he adds. “Empathy is one of the primary currencies of any type of storytelling, and songwriting is no exception to that.”
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100
Work composed: 1944
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: October 4, 2010; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 B-flat clarinets, 1E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, wood block, piano, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 46 minutes
Sergei Prokofiev described his Fifth Symphony as “glorifying the human spirit … praising the free and happy man – his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul. I cannot say I chose this theme; it was born in me and had to express itself.” In a postwar interview, Prokofiev added, “The Fifth Symphony was a very important composition to me, as it marked my return to the symphonic form after a long interval. I regard it as the culmination of a large period in my creative life. I conceived of it as a symphony on the greatness of the human soul.” Indeed, Prokofiev’s career reached its zenith with his Fifth Symphony. Soon after its premiere his health began to fail. Although Prokofiev lived another eight years and continued composing, no other work brought him such unqualified praise, both at home and abroad. Prokofiev’s countryman, composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, described the Fifth Symphony as “the embodiment of man’s courage, energy, and spiritual grandeur.”
Prokofiev’s orchestral mastery permeates all four movements of the Fifth Symphony, which adheres to the structure of a Baroque sonata: slow first and third movements alternating with fast second and fourth movements. As the longest and the most epic in its conception among Prokofiev’s symphonies, the Fifth’s emotional content runs the gamut from majestic to whimsical, from graceful to turbulent, and from humorous to self-mocking.
Pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who attended the premiere onJanuary 13, 1945, recalled the powerful events of the day. In a rare conducting appearance, Prokofiev led the State Symphonic Orchestra of the U.S.S.R. at the Moscow Conservatory. “[Prokofiev] stood like a monument on a pedestal,” Richter said. “And then, when Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silenced reigned in the hall, artillery salvos suddenly thundered forth. His baton was raised. He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this, something symbolic. It was as if all of us – including Prokofiev – had reached some kind of shared turning point.” The cannon fire to which Richter refers was a victory salute to the Red Army, which had won a decisive battle on the Vistula River, which allowed the army to enter Nazi Germany; World War Two was near its end. According to Prokofiev’s biographer, Israel Nestyev, “Prokofiev’s compelling music perfectly suited the mood of the audience.”
© 2019 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, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com