Program Notes: Concert II

Ysaÿe // Cello Concerto op. 28

About the composer // Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was known as the king of the violin. From a long line of artisans and violinists, his primary teachers were his father and Henri Vieuxtemps. He was famous first for his virtuoso violin skills but also had an illustrious conducting, teaching, and composing career. The later careers became more prominent as his health deteriorated in his final years, primarily due to diabetes As a violinist, his motto for technique was, “Nothing which wouldn’t have for goal: emotion, poetry, heart.” Additionally, the conductor Sir Henry Wood said, “The quality of tone was ravishingly beautiful…. He seemed to get more color out of a violin than any of his contemporaries.”

About the music // His penchant for color as a performer carries into his music. The sonata for solo cello dates from the same time and harmonic voice as his more famous violin sonatas op. 27 (1923-24). Ysaÿe was a skilled violist and proficient violist in addition to his mastery of the violin; hence he even suggested fingerings. The first movement is slow and opens with a quadruple stop that feels reminiscent of the opening of several of the Sarabandes from Bach’s famous cello sonatas.

This first movement is stoic and graceful, with just a hint of melancholy. An intermezzo, the second movement is faster, yet it has a languid deliberateness as its graceful song unfolds in short melodic statements that are interrupted with plucked chords. The third movement is very short and is again marked slow. The key signature is written as c minor but the tonic center is muddled. The melody is marked by an improvisatory and conversational feeling. The conversation is an internal dialogue that begins from the lowest reaches of the cello and slowly stretches to its top as the individual seems to come to a decision. That resolute, final high f sharp is typically performed so that it moves right into the fourth movement. Here, the composer has decided that the tonal center is firmly c minor after a short, three bar intro. Excuse the reference, but truly the best description for this movement is, “fast and furious.” The cello is ferocious in its speed until the composer “hits the brakes,” so to speak, with music that is reminiscent of the first movement (also in c minor), until the savage pace once more resumes.

Kodály // Cello and Piano Sonata op. 4

About the composer // Zóltan Kodály, a Hungarian composer, lived from 1881 – 1967 and was a close friend and contemporary of Bartók. Together with Bartók, the two essentially invented the field of ethnomusicology due to their fascination with and study of Hungarian folk music. A largely self-taught cellist, composer, and violinist, Kodály later earned a Ph. D in music at the Academy of Music in Budapest. Kodály is also the creator of an internationally famous system of music pedagogy called the Kodály method. Incidentally, Utah’s own Brigham Young University is a major center for certifying Kodály method pedagogues.

About the music // Dating from 1909-1910, the op. 4 Sonata is written in two movements. Kodály always intended to add a third movement and his Sonatina op. 68 from 1957 was originally intended to be that finale. As Kodály explained, “I intended to add a third movement to my Sonata in two movements, but this did not come off. My style had undergone such changes that I was unable to recapture the mood of 1909.” Cellist Jenö Kerpely and pianist Béla Bartók gave the first performance of the two movements on May 17, 1910.

The cello opens with an extended, relaxed solo in the first movement. This fantasia is meditative with a faint hint of melancholy. And yes, the rising motif (melody) that forms the core of this movement is a quotation from the slow movement of Brahms’ Double Concerto. The movement builds in intensity until it returns to the meditative, wandering music from its opening. The second music is infused with Kodály’s love for Hungarian folk dances. It’s exuberance explodes into a wonderful race between cello and piano. It isn’t a race to win, but a jovial back and forth banter between friends. After a “grand pause,” the music transitions into a contemplative serenity that is reminiscent of the fantasia. It fades into almost nothing with an incomplete cadence at its conclusion.

Mahler/Stein // Symphony No. 4 (chamber orchestra)

About the composer // Mahler hopefully doesn’t need too much of an introduction, so I will suffice it to say that Mahler was a great German composer who lived from 1860-1911. Utah Sympony’s own Maurice Abravanel was one of the great composers who championed Mahler’s work. Abravanel’s recordings of Mahler’s Symphonies are beloved still by audiophiles today. Symphony No. 4 date from Mahler’s first period. He was yet to met his wife Alma Schindler and experience the tragic death of his child.

About the music // When you think of Mahler symphonies, typically gargantuan works with hundreds of performers come to mind. Certainly not chamber music! Symphony No. 4 in its original form is already on the lighter side for Mahler and as such, it has inspired a number of adaptations for chamber orchestra. Tonight we perform the 1920 arrangement of Erwin Stein who was an Austrian arranger, writer, and pupil/friend of Schoenberg. After the Anschluss, Stein fled to England where he became an editor at Boosey & Hawkes. His focus was mainly on Mahler, Schoenberg, Britten, Berg, and Webern, all of whom he know personally.

The last of Mahler’s “Wunderhorn” symphonies, Mahler composed Symphony No. 4 between June 1899 and April 1901 and conducted the first performance on November 25, 1901, in Munich. The “Wunderhorn” name derives from the text Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). All four of Mahler’s first Symphonies used songs, elements, or texts from this anthology of German folk music and folklore. He discovered the book from Carl Maria von Weber’s grandson. For the next fourteen years after discovering the book, Mahler used Des Knaben Wunderhorn as the source for all but one of his song texts.. The text of the fourth movement was first composed as a stand-alone song in 1892, “Das himmlische Leben.” Mahler considered making this song the finale of his Symphony No. 3 but later changed his mind and decided it should be the destination of his fourth Symphony.

Mahler wrote his Symphony No. 4 backwards, beginning with the fourth movement. The music of the final movement, sung by soprano, forms the embryonic structural core for the entirety of the rest of the work. The text is a child’s view of heaven. This great work explores an almost non-chronological journey from experience to innocence, from complexity to simplicity, and from earthly life to heaven. A sense of innocence pervades all four movements. Mahler typically wrote a detailed programmatic description for each movement but didn’t for the 4th Symphony, saying, “I know the most wonderful names for the movements, but I will not betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners so that they can subject them to banal misunderstandings and distortions.” Indeed, it was ridiculed at its premiere. Despite those early critics, it is now Mahler’s most performed symphony, perhaps due to its brevity as Mahler’s shortest symphony, or at least to its light and innocent nature. The first movement is a sonata form that expands into a warm song. We know that the story of the second movement, a scherzo, is of a pied piper who leads his victims to death through his violin playing. The first violinist plays the pied piper’s melody on a violin tuned higher (scordatura) and is instructed to play like a Medieval fiddle. We listeners know his sinister purpose as his enticing, jovial music is underscored by menacing lower voices. The third movement is a serene slow movement of repose and contentedness. Mahler wrote that he was inspired by “a vision of a tombstone on which was carved an image of the departed, with folded arms, in eternal sleep.” The soprano joins the ensemble in the fourth movement. Mahler’s instructions state that it should be, “Very comfortab[le], featuring a child (represented by the soprano) singing a naïve vision of Heaven and preparation of a feast.: He wrote also that the soprano should sing “with child-like, bright expression, and without the slightest suggestion of parody.” Strophic in structure, each verse is separated with interludes and the sleigh bells of the beginning return frequently. The verses and interludes are framed by a prelude and postlude.

Program notes written by and copyrighted by Crystal Young-Otterstrom (2017)