Gabriella Smith: Tumblebird Contrails
Richard Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder, Op. posth. (Four Last Songs)
Ruth Crawford Seeger: Andante for Strings
Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 “The Inextinguishable”
Work composed: 2014
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: at these concerts
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, assorted metal objects, bass drum, drum set, snare drum, suspended cymbal, assorted metal objects, tam-tam, and strings
Estimated duration: 12 minutes
The work of composer/environmentalist Gabriella Smith has taken classical music into exhilarating and often uncharted territory. The Philadelphia Inquirer described her work as “high-voltage and wildly imaginative.” Last spring, the Oregon Symphony performed Smith’s Riprap, and Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane included Smith’s chamber work Maré in a special performance co-presented by the Oregon Symphony and The Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, titled “Be As Water.”
A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Smith grew up playing and writing music, hiking, backpacking, and volunteering on a songbird research project. Her music grows out of a love of play, exploring new sounds on instruments to connect listeners with the natural world.
Smith writes, “Tumblebird Contrails is inspired by a single moment I experienced while backpacking in Point Reyes, sitting in the sand at the edge of the ocean, listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the Pacific (the keening gulls, pounding surf, rush of approaching waves, sizzle of sand and sea foam in receding tides), the constant ebb and flow of pitch to pitchless, tune to texture, grooving to free-flowing, watching a pair of ravens playing in the wind, rolling, swooping, diving, soaring – imagining the ecstasy of wind in the wings – jet trails painting never-ending streaks across the sky. The title, Tumblebird Contrails, is a Kerouac-inspired nonsense phrase I invented to evoke the sound and feeling of the piece.”
Vier letzte Lieder, Op. posth. (Four Last Songs)
Work composed: 1948
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Carlos Kalmar conducted the Oregon Symphony with soprano Amber Wagner on January 28, 2012
Instrumentation: soprano, piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, celesta, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 25 minutes
Richard Strauss loved writing for the voice, particularly for sopranos. He married his muse, soprano Pauline de Anha in 1894; she remained his artistic inspiration for the rest of his life, even long after Pauline herself had retired from the stage. Strauss’s operas feature indelible soprano roles: the Marschallin from Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos, the title role in Elektra, and many others. Strauss also composed more than 200 lieder; the most famous of these, the Four Last Songs, are among the last works he completed.
German lieder are usually written for voice and piano, but Strauss expanded the genre’s expressive capabilities with deft, timbre-specific symphonic accompaniments. The poems Strauss chose, by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, reveal hidden layers of emotion and meaning when paired with Strauss’ masterful orchestrations.
In 1947, Strauss read Joseph von Eichendorff’s poem Im Abendrot (At Sunset), which describes an elderly couple looking back on their long life together. Strauss immediately connected with the poem’s imagery and how it reflected his time with Pauline. Not long afterwards, Strauss was introduced to the poetry of Hermann Hesse. Strauss set three of Hesse’s poems, which echo Eichendorff’s in their acknowledgement of death’s imminence, without fear or regret, while bidding farewell to a beloved life.
These poems, and Strauss’ settings, create a musical framework for contemplating mortality. They explore memory, nostalgia, resignation, and acceptance as they also celebrate life’s joys, the satisfaction of work well done, and the enduring support of a long, close marriage.
The songs abound with exquisite examples of word painting: the ethereal violin solo in “Beim Schlafengehen” (On Going to Sleep), followed by the soprano’s soaring echo on the word “seele,” (soul); the flutes’ fluttering birdsong conjuring up a pair of larks in “Im Abendrot” (At Twilight), and Strauss’s musical answer to the final line of the same poem, “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (Can this perhaps be death?), ends with a quotation from his tone poem Death and Transfiguration.
Andante for Strings
Work composed: 1931. Originally written as the slow third movement of her string quartet, Crawford later arranged it for string orchestra as a stand-alone work
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: at these concerts
Instrumentation: string orchestra
Estimated duration: 3.5 minutes
“It’s perhaps the best thing written for quartet in this country.” – composer Henry Cowell, on Ruth Crawford’s Andante from her 1931 String Quartet
Ruth Crawford, also known as Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a pioneering Modernist composer whose music was decades ahead of its time. Her bold innovations deconstructing the basic building blocks of music: rhythm, pitch, melody, harmony, dynamics, and structure foreshadowed the music of many composers working today.
Crawford was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition, which she used to study in Paris and Berlin in the early 1930s. Crawford and her music were highly regarded among her contemporaries, a group known as the “ultramodernists.” Composer Henry Cowell, himself an avant-garde composer became a champion of Crawford’s music, and suggested she study with Cowell’s former composition teacher, Charles Seeger. Seeger, unimpressed by other women composition students he had taught, was initially reluctant, but once he saw Crawford’s work, he understood her unique approach. Crawford and Seeger’s student-teacher relationship gradually evolved into a romance, and they married in 1932.
For the rest of her life, the Seegers worked collaboratively collecting and researching American folk music; they also became involved in leftist political activities. As a wife, mother, stepmother, political activist, and ethnomusicologist, Crawford Seeger had little time to write her own music. For many years, Crawford Seeger was known almost exclusively either for her arrangements of folk songs; as Seeger’s wife; and/or as folk singer Pete Seeger’s step-mother. More recently, Crawford’s work has enjoyed a long-overdue “rediscovery” by musicians and audiences alike.
The Andante for Strings originated as the slow movement from Crawford’s 1931 String Quartet. Its brevity belies the complexity and depth of its forward-looking compositional ideas. Crawford explained, “The underlying plan is heterophony [simultaneous variation of a single melodic line] of dynamics; a sort of counterpoint of crescendi and diminuendi. The crescendo and diminuendo in each instrument comes in definite rhythmic patterns, which change from time to time as the movement proceeds. The crescendos are intended to be precisely timed; the high point is indicated to occur at some specific beat of the measure … The melodic line grows out of this continuous increase and decrease; it is given, one tone at a time, to different instruments, and each new melodic tone is brought in at the high point in a crescendo.”
Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 “The Inextinguishable”
Work composed: 1914-16
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony on October 30-31, 2011
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, two sets of timpani placed at opposite ends of the stage, and strings
Estimated duration: 35 minutes
“I have an idea for a new composition, which has no program but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live … life and motion, though varied – very varied – yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this ... I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.” – Carl Nielsen writing to his wife Ann Marie, 1914
Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s music continues to gain new admirers more than 90 years after his death. Although Nielsen’s music was known in Europe during his lifetime, it was rarely heard elsewhere until after World War II; since then, thanks to the efforts of conductors like Leonard Bernstein and others, today Nielsen’s music is widely performed in concert halls around the world. Nielsen composed in a variety of genres, but it is his six symphonies that have made the biggest impact internationally.
The seventh of 12 children, Nielsen grew up in a small village on the island of Funen. His father, an amateur musician, gave young Carl, who showed strong musical aptitude at an early age, lessons on violin, piano, and cornet. Along with music, Nielsen also grew up with an abiding love of nature, which manifests in much of his own work, most particularly in his Symphony No. 4.
In May 1914, Nielsen described the initial ideas for what became his fourth symphony in the letter quoted above. Over the next two years, as World War I ravaged Europe and Denmark maintained a careful but fragile neutrality, Nielsen wrestled to combine these concepts with a newer, more musically innovative approach to symphonic writing.
Symphony No. 4 has one large movement with four distinct sections played without pause. Although the music is tonal, Nielsen strove to, as he put it, “once and for all see about getting away from keys but still remain diatonically convincing.” The addition of a second set of timpani provides dramatic power, particularly in the final section.
Nielsen’s writing is episodic but not aimless. The music encompasses a wide spectrum of moods, which Nielsen expresses through his masterful use of timbres in the winds, brasses, and strings. As the music evolved, Nielsen found his “short title:” “The Inextinguishable.” It is tempting to hear this music as a commentary on Word War I, because of the timing of its composition, but Nielsen intended it to express something more timeless: “the elemental will to live” that animates all living things.
© Elizabeth Schwartz