Lyric for Strings
Work composed: 1946. Dedicated “to my grandmother.”
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: James DePreist led the Oregon Symphony on January 14, 2001
Instrumentation: string orchestra
Estimated duration: 6 minutes
Hailed by Fanfare in 2015 as “one of the greatest composers of our time,” George Theophilus Walker achieved renown in performance, composition, and teaching over the course of his long career. After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory, Walker attended the Curtis Institute, becoming the first Black student to earn an Artist’s Diploma in piano and composition. At Curtis, Walker studied piano with Rudolf Serkin and composition with Gian Carlo Menotti. Walker continued his education at the Eastman School of Music, where he earned a D.M.A. in composition, the first Black to do so.
Walker’s life list of accomplishments includes many more “firsts:” he was the first Black instrumentalist to play a recital in New York’s Town Hall; the first Black soloist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, and the first Black instrumentalist to obtain major concert management, with National Concert Artists. In 1996, Walker became the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Upon hearing about the prize, conductor Zubin Mehta exclaimed, “This composer has finally gotten the recognition he deserves.” In 2000, Walker was elected to the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, the first living composer so honored.
Like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Walker’s Lyric for Strings (initially titled Lament for Strings), began as a movement for string quartet. Walker wrote his String Quartet No. 1 in 1946 as a graduate student at the Curtis Institute, and dedicated it to his grandmother, who had died the previous year.
After its 1946 premiere, Walker excerpted the second movement and gave it a new title, Lyric for Strings. As a stand-alone piece, Lyric quickly became one of the most regularly programmed works by a living composer. Classical New Jersey said that Lyric for Strings “deserves to be as popular as the string elegies by Grieg, Fauré and Elgar,” while American Record Guide praised its “hushed beauty and passionate intensity.” Melodies interweave among the instruments, expressing both Walker’s anguish at the passing of his beloved grandmother and the joy her memory evokes.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
Work composed: Tchaikovsky began composing his first piano concerto in November 1874 and finished it in February 1875. He revised it in the summer of 1879 and again in December 1888: this final revision is the one usually performed. Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to his mentor Nicolai Rubenstein, but after Rubenstein excoriated the work as unplayable, Tchaikovsky removed Rubenstein’s name from the manuscript and dedicated it to pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony with pianist Arnaldo Cohen on September 14, 2014
Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
Estimated duration: 33 minutes
The first measures of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 have assumed an identity all their own, distinct from the remainder of the concerto. Many people recognize the four-note descending horn theme and the iconic crashing chords of the pianist’s first entrance without knowing the work as a whole. Interestingly, this signature introduction to the Piano Concerto No. 1 is just that, an introduction; after approximately 100 measures it disappears and never returns. These opening bars have also become part of popular culture, as the theme to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio programs; in the 1971 cult film Harold and Maude; and in a Monty Python sketch.
Although the rest of the concerto is equally compelling, that was not the initial opinion of Tchaikovsky’s friend and mentor, Nikolai Rubenstein. Rubenstein, the director of the Moscow Conservatory, had had premiered many of Tchaikovsky’s works, including Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky considered Rubenstein “the greatest pianist in Moscow,” and wanted Rubenstein’s help regarding the technical aspects of the solo piano part. In a letter to his patron Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky described his now- infamous meeting with Rubenstein on Christmas Eve, 1874: “I played the first movement. Not a single word, not a single comment!” After Tchaikovsky finished, as he explained to Mme. von Meck, “A torrent poured from Nikolai Gregorievich’s mouth … My concerto, it turned out, was worthless and unplayable – passages so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written as to be beyond rescue – the music itself was bad, vulgar – only two or three pages were worth preserving – the rest must be thrown out or completely rewritten.”
It is true that this concerto is awkwardly constructed in places, with some abrupt musical transitions. The writing for the soloist is often exceedingly difficult, because Tchaikovsky was not a pianist and did not possess a player’s understanding. However, Rubenstein’s excessively negative reaction is nonetheless puzzling.
After the majestic introduction, which anticipates the harmonic language of the following movements, the Andante non troppo continues with a theme Tchaikovsky borrowed from a Ukrainian folk song. Woodwinds introduce a second theme, gentler and quieter, later echoed by the piano. The movement ends with a huge cadenza featuring a display of virtuoso solo fireworks.
In the Andantino semplice, Tchaikovsky also features a borrowed melody, “Il faut s’amuser, danser et rire” (You must enjoy yourself by dancing and laughing) from the French cabaret. Tchaikovsky likely meant this tune as a wistful tribute to the Soprano Désirée Artôt, with whom he had been in love a few years previously. (In another musical compliment, Tchaikovsky used the letters of her name as the opening notes of a melody from the first movement).
The galloping melody of the Allegro con fuoco, another Ukrainian folk song, suggests a troika of horses racing over the steppes. A rhapsodic theme in the strings recalls the lush texture of the introduction. The two melodies alternate and overlap, dancing toward a monumental coda.
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52
Work composed: Sibelius began working on his third symphony in September 1904 and finished it in 1907. Dedicated to British conductor Granville Bantock.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor Nicholas Carter led the Oregon Symphony on October 10, 2016
Estimated duration: 26 minutes
In September 1904, Jean Sibelius began his third symphony with a clear plan. He believed wholeheartedly that “a symphony should be music first and last,” which countered the aesthetic styles of his contemporaries, including Debussy, Schoenberg, Strauss, Ravel, and, most particularly, Mahler. In 1910, Mahler and Sibelius met and discussed their philosophies of music at length; during this well-documented conversation, Mahler declared, “A symphony is like the world; it must embrace everything.”
Sibelius thought otherwise. “To my mind, a Mozart Allegro is the most perfect model for a symphonic movement,” he remarked. “Think of its wonderful unity and homogeneity!” Later he wrote, “Since Beethoven’s time, all so-called symphonies, with the exception of those by Brahms, have been symphonic poems. In some cases the composers have given us a program or have at least suggested what they had in mind; in other cases it is evident that they were concerned with describing or illustrating something, be it a landscape or a series of pictures. That does not correspond to my symphonic ideal. My symphonies are music – conceived and worked out as musical expression, without any literary basis … For me, music begins where words leave off.”
The Third Symphony employs a medium- sized orchestra; its three (rather than four) movements and its stripped-down instrumentation reinforced Sibelius’ need to prove music could exist purely on its own terms. Within these quasi-Classical parameters, however, Sibelius writes music full of Romantic nods: the jollity of the opening celebrating its C major tonality; several transitional melodies that hint at emotional depths unknown in Mozart’s music; and, around 8.5 minutes into the Allegro moderato, a statement in winds and brass, just a few measures long, so heroic and aspirational that film composer Howard Shore used it, almost verbatim, as the central theme of his score for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Andantino and the closing Allegro both feature a seemingly unending supply of attractive and interesting melodies. They range in mood from the introspection of the second movement to a quietly confident statement that builds into the Finale’s full-throated celebration.
© 2021 Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a freelance 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 the country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com