Program Notes: Concert V

Roens: Three Existential Songs

Three Existential Songs, completed in 2016, was written for University of Utah tenor Robert Breault and pianist Jeffrey Price.  The title refers to the existential nature of the texts.  The first, Afterword to Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, reflects a concern with identity in the desperation with which the Thomas Malory of the Afterward wishes to make clear that it was he and not one of the other Thomas Malorys (there were, I think, three) who wrote Morte d’Arthur The second, 20 Questions, by University of Utah poet (and former Utah poet laureate) Katharine Coles, references the game of the same name to ask searching questions about an unknown entity; and the third, Winter Solstice, also by Coles, speaks of the weary sameness of years and the changes of moments.  The three songs act as a set, the long piano introduction to the first, serving as a kind of overture to all three.  Throughout, the vocal line expresses the text while the piano part often serves to comment.

About Steve Roens // A recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Composers’ Conference, Steve Roens has received commissions from the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, the NOVA Chamber Music Series, and the Intermezzo Chamber Music Series. In addition to teaching music theory and composition at the University of Utah, he has served as an Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts, a Senior Associate Dean of the University’s Office of Undergraduate Studies and Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. His music is published by the Association for the Promotion of New Music and is available on the Centaur label.

Debussy: Piano Etudes Book I & II

About the composer // The great French composer, Claude Debussy, lived 1862-1918. A giant of the French musical scene, He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903.

Debussy was the oldest of five children. From humble beginnings, his father ran a china shop and his mother was a seamstress. His first exposure to music came in the form of piano lessons paid for by his Aunt. His skills quickly developed and in 1871 he began to study with Marie Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to be a pupil of Chopín. Although Debussy always believed her, it is impossible to substantiate her claims. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, where he spent the next 11 years. Debussy won the 1884 Prix de Rome and spent four years at the Villa Medici. Debussy was rather miserable in Italy, but it inspired him to forge his own path as a composer. Indeed, the musical language that Debussy developed was entirely novel and foreign to the musical tradition of the Germans and Italians. He would become a musical giant and would shatter the musical lexicon of the time.

About the music // In 1915, Debussy was suffering from cancer and disheartened by World War I. Nevertheless, he persisted and continued to write brilliant music. The Études are among his last compositions. This set of Études were his first foray into the tradition, and he dedicated them to Chopín. Although Debussy takes inspiration from Chopín and Czerny for the set, these pieces are entirely his, and entirely unique. They are extremely difficult and Debussy himself described them as “a warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands.”

Book 1 explores the technical problems and musical possibilities inherent in different intervals (thirds, sixths, etc.), while Book 2 engages in the exploration of musical syntax and style. Many of them unfurl in a wave of perpetual motion. The pace is unrelenting throughout, even in the “slower” movements. Full of wit, virtuosity, and true brilliance, these pieces are sure to astound.

Ravel: Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Clarinet, Flute, and String Quartet

About the composer // French composer Maurice Ravel lived from 1875-1937. In 1897, at the age of twenty-two, Ravel began composition lessons at the Paris Conservatoire with Gabriel Fauré and continued them until the elder master’s retirement in 1903. Ravel considered an outsider at the Conservatoire because of his novel musical ideas and compositional voice. He tried to win the prestigious Prix de Rome four years in a row and was denied, It turned out that it was rigged.  The prizes were all being awarded to students of the chair of the award jury. Ravel exposed this corruption and the scandal became known as L’Affaire Ravel. Ravel often found himself overshadowed by Claude Debussy. Nevertheless, he was a giant of music in his own right. Ravel often brought existing musical idioms and influences (such as neoclassicism, baroque, folk music, and jazz), together into surprising and brilliant ways.

About the music // Some claim that Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro is the most beautiful piece ever written. Certainly, it is lush and gorgeous. Written in 1907, Ravel was well established as a composer by this time.

Ravel was commissioned by the instrument firm Érard to write a piece that showcased their double-action pedal harp, in competition with the Pleyel instrument company who had commissioned Claude Debussy to write his Danses Sacres et Profanes to showcase their new chromatic harp. Ravel had to complete the piece in eight days, “a week of frantic work and three sleepless nights” in order to meet the publishing deadline and before leaving on vacation himself. Ravel then high-tailed it make it to a yachting trip with friends down the Rhine and accidentally left the newly minted score at the tailors. Thankfully, the tailor made sure to protect the score and return it to its composer.

Ravel omitted the Introduction and Allegro from the catalog of his works, made no mention of it in his autobiography, and referred to it in only two of his letters. Nevertheless, it was the first of his works that Ravel himself recorded.

A miniature concerto for Harp, the piece is in the remove yet harp-friendly key of G-flat major. The Introduction is only 26 bars in length and feels reminiscent of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. A modified allegro form, the Allegro is a beautiful dance-like theme that is presented first by the harp. After a brilliant climax, a harp cadenza prequels a finale filled with colorful orchestration.

Program notes written by Crystal Young-Otterstrom.