The Peninsula Music Festival - Season 2009 Program Notes
Program 8 - Thursday, August 20, 2009 - Beethoven's Piano Concerti & Ballet III
Seven Popular Spanish Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
Composed in 1914.
Premiered on January 14, 1915 in Madrid by soprano Luisa Vela and the composer.
When Falla was preparing his opera La Vida Breve for its first Paris performance, at the Opéra Comique on December 30, 1913 (it had been premiered in Nice on April 1st), he received two requests — one from the soprano Luisa Vela, who was performing the leading role of Salud in the cast of La Vida Breve; the other, from a Greek singing teacher. Vela was planning a series of solo recitals during the coming months, and she asked Falla to provide some songs in Spanish style for her programs. The Greek singing teacher wanted advice about the appropriate accompanimental style for some melodies from his homeland. Falla experimented with setting one of the Greek songs, and discovered that he could extrapolate a suitable harmonic idiom from the implications of the melody itself. He tried out this new technique in the songs he was preparing for Vela, which he had decided would be settings of seven popular indigenous melodies culled from various regions of Spain. The Siete Canciones Populares Españolas were largely completed by the time he retreated to Spain in 1914 in the face of the German invasion of France; he and Vela gave their premiere at the Ateneo in Madrid on January 14, 1915. The idiom of the piano accompaniments that Falla devised for his Seven Popular Spanish Songs was, according to the composer’s biographer Suzanne Demarquez, derived from “the natural resonance ... and modal nature of each song, without in any way neglecting the grace, the sensitivity, the delicate style of his pianistic inspiration.” Though the Siete Canciones Populares Españolas is virtually the only work of Falla to quote existing Spanish themes (two tiny folksong fragments were employed in The Three-Cornered Hat), so potent were these pieces in defining a national style of art song that Gilbert Chase said they provide “a model for contemporary song-writers throughout the Spanish-speaking world, in which popular and artistic elements are closely and often inextricably intertwined.”
El Paño Moruno (“The Moorish Cloth”), whose accompaniment was inspired by the steely brilliance of the guitar, comes from Murcia in southeastern Spain. Seguidilla Murciana, also from the province of Murcia, is a popular dance song in quick triple time. Asturiana is a lament from the northern region of Asturias. The Jota, mainly associated with the central province of Aragon, is one of the most familiar of Spanish dance forms. Nana is an Andalusian lullaby. Canción (“Song”) exhibits the pattern of mixed rhythmic stresses that characterizes much of Spain’s indigenous music. Polo, Andalusian in origin, evokes the Gypsy world of flamenco.
“For Falla,” wrote Gilbert Chase, “a folk song is not a simple tune to be arbitrarily adorned. Each folk song, he believes, conceals a deep musical meaning, a latent wealth of expression, that the arranger should endeavor to fathom and extract. Complex and difficult as are some of his accompaniments, they represent the re-creation on an artistic plane of the inherent melos of each song. Such a feat can only be accomplished when a great artist and a profound folklorist are found in the same person.”
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Composed in 1809.
Premiered on November 11, 1811 in Leipzig, conducted by Johann Philipp Schulz with Friedrich Schneider as soloist.
Beethoven's Emperor Piano Concerto was last performed at the Peninsula Music Festival on August 3, 1998 with Louis Lortie, soloist, and Victor Yampolsky conducting.
The year 1809 was a difficult one for Vienna and for Beethoven. In May, Napoleon invaded the city with enough firepower to send the residents scurrying and Beethoven into the basement of his brother’s house. The bombardment was close enough that he covered his sensitive ears with pillows to protect them from the din. On July 29th, he wrote to the publisher Breitkopf und Härtel, “We have passed through a great deal of misery. I tell you that since May 4th, I have brought into the world little that is connected; only here and there a fragment. The whole course of events has affected me body and soul…. What a disturbing, wild life around me; nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts.” He bellowed his frustration at a French officer he chanced to meet: “If I were a general and knew as much about strategy as I do about counterpoint, I’d give you fellows something to think about.” Austria’s finances were in shambles, and the annual stipend Beethoven had been promised by several noblemen who supported his work was considerably reduced in value, placing him in a precarious pecuniary predicament. As a sturdy tree can root in flinty soil, however, a great musical work grew from these unpromising circumstances — by the end of that very year, 1809, Beethoven had completed his “Emperor” Concerto.
When conditions finally allowed the Concerto to be performed in Leipzig some two years later, it was hailed by the press as “without doubt one of the most original, imaginative, most effective but also one of the most difficult of all concertos.” (The soloist was Friedrich Schneider, a prominent organist and pianist in Leipzig who was enlisted by the local publisher Breitkopf und Härtel to bring this Concerto by the firm’s most prominent composer to performance.) The Viennese premiere on February 12, 1812, with Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny at the keyboard, fared considerably less well. It was given as part of a benefit party sponsored by the augustly titled “Society of Noble Ladies for Charity for Fostering the Good and Useful.” Beethoven’s Concerto was only one unit in a passing parade of sopranos, tenors and pianists who dispensed a stream of the most fashionable musical bon-bons for the delectation of the Noble Ladies. Beethoven’s majestic work was out of place among these trifles, and a reviewer for one periodical sniffed, “Beethoven, full of proud self-confidence, refused to write for the crowd. He can be understood and appreciated only by the connoisseurs, and one cannot reckon on their being in the majority at such affairs.” It was not the musical bill that really robbed the attention of the audience from the Concerto, however. It was the re-creation, through living tableaux — in costume and in detail — of paintings by Raphael, Poussin and Troyes. The Ladies loved that. It was encored. Beethoven left.
The sobriquet “Emperor” attached itself to the E-flat Concerto very early, though it was not of Beethoven’s doing. If anything, he would have objected to the name. “Emperor” equaled “Napoleon” for Beethoven, as for most Europeans of the time, and anyone familiar with the story of the “Eroica” Symphony will remember how that particular ruler had tumbled from the great composer’s esteem. “This man will trample the rights of men underfoot and become a greater tyrant than any other,” he rumbled to his young friend and pupil Ferdinand Ries. The Concerto’s name may have been tacked on by an early publisher or pianist because of the grand character of the work; or it may have originated with the purported exclamation during the premiere by a French officer at one particularly noble passage, “C’est l’Empereur!” The most likely explanation, however, and one ignored with a unanimity rare among musical scholars, is given by Anton Schindler, long-time friend and early biographer of Beethoven. The Viennese premiere, it seems, took place at a celebration of the Emperor’s birthday. Since the party sponsored by the Noble Ladies was part of the festivities ordered by the French conquerors, what could be more natural than to call this new Concerto introduced at that gathering the “Emperor”?
The “Emperor” is the largest in scale of all Beethoven’s concertos. It is also the last one, though he did considerable work on a sixth piano concerto in 1815, but never completed it. The Fifth Concerto is written in a virtuosic style that looks forward to the grand pianism of Liszt in its full chordal textures and wide dynamic range. Such prescience of piano technique is remarkable when it is realized that the modern, steel-frame concert grand was not perfected until 1825, and in this work, written sixteen years earlier, Beethoven envisioned possibilities offered only by this later, improved instrument.
The Concerto opens with broad chords for orchestra answered by piano before the main theme is announced by the violins. The following orchestral tutti embraces a rich variety of secondary themes leading to a repeat of all the material by the piano accompanied by the orchestra. A development ensues with “the fury of a hail-storm,” wrote Sir Donald Tovey. Following a recapitulation of the themes and the sounding of a proper chord on which to launch a cadenza, Beethoven wrote into the piano part, “Do not play a cadenza, but begin immediately what follows.” At this point, he supplied a tiny, written-out solo passage that begins the coda. This being the first of his concertos that Beethoven himself would not play, he wanted to have more control over the finished product, and so he prescribed exactly what the soloist was to do. With this novel device, he initiated the practice of completely writing out all unaccompanied passages that was to become the standard method used by most later composers in their concertos.
The second movement begins with a chorale for strings. Sir George Grove dubbed this movement a sequence of “quasi-variations,” with the piano providing a coruscating filigree above the orchestral accompaniment. This Adagio leads directly into the finale, a vast rondo with sonata elements. The bounding ascent of the main theme is heard first from the soloist and then from the orchestra. Developmental episodes separate the returns of the theme. The closing pages include the magical sound of drum-taps accompanying the shimmering piano chords and scales, and a final brief romp to the finish.
The Three-Cornered Hat, Ballet in Two Parts
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
Composed in 1917 and 1919.
Premiered on July 22, 1919 in London, conducted by Ernest Ansermet.
De Falla's Three-Cornered Hat was last performed at the Peninsula Music Festival on August 7, 1997 with Cynthia Stehl, soloist, and Victor Yampolsky conducting
The dazzling Parisian success of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe that began in 1909 came to a jarring halt when the Guns of August tore across Belgium and France to begin the World War I in 1914. Diaghilev,
Leonide Massine and some of the company took refuge in Switzerland and Spain, while Nijinsky and others fled to America. Diaghilev arranged a season in Spain for 1917, and, always on the prowl for new talent, took the opportunity to look up a musician Stravinsky had met in Paris in 1910. Stravinsky described his Spanish colleague as “even smaller than myself, and as modest and withdrawn as an oyster... unpityingly religious, and the shyest man I have ever met.” His name was Manuel de Falla.
Falla, a meticulous worker who composed slowly, had completed only a small number of works by 1917 — most notably Nights in the Gardens of Spain, the opera La Vida Breve and the ballet El Amor Brujo — and was little known outside of his homeland. When Diaghilev and Massine presented themselves to him in Barcelona, he took them to see a one-act farce set in the early 19th century about the attempted seduction of a miller’s wife by the local governor for which he had provided the music, El corregidor y la molinera (“The Corregidor and the Miller’s Wife”). The script for this “pantomime” was by Gregorio Martinez Sierra, who based it on a short novel by Pedro de Alarcon published in 1874 as El sombrero de tres picos. Alarcon was said to have heard the story in turn from an old goatherd who hired himself out as an entertainer for local weddings and feasts. Of Falla’s score, Massine wrote that it “seemed to us very exciting, and its blend of violence and passion was similar to much of the music of the local folk-dances. Both Diaghilev and I felt that the story and the music offered us the potentials of a full-length ballet.” Falla accepted Diaghilev’s proposal to revise and extend his score for production when the war was over, but gave the provision that he be allowed enough time to study Spanish folk music and dance styles to assure the correct atmosphere for the finished work. Diaghilev thought this a capital idea, and he, Massine, Falla and Felix Fernandez Garcia, a locally celebrated dancer who was enlisted to instruct the company in Spanish dance styles, set off for a leisurely tour of the country.
The four pilgrims visited Saragossa, Salamanca, Toledo, Seville, Cordova, Granada and many small villages, eyes and ears constantly open for material for the new ballet. Falla and Massine both collected a wealth of ideas, and snippets from several of the melodies that the composer discovered ended up in the score, including one he heard by chance from a blind man walking the streets near the Alhambra chanting tunes to the accompaniment of his battered guitar. Falla took up the ballet score again after his grand Iberian tour, added to it two dance numbers and expanded the instrumentation from the original seventeen-piece chamber scoring to full orchestra.
It was not until World War I ended that the production of The Three-Cornered Hat could be staged as part of the 1919 London season of the Ballet Russe. Diaghilev commissioned Pablo Picasso to design the decor; it was the great painter’s first ballet assignment. Massine choreographed the work with the help of the Spanish dancer Felix, who was brought to London to train the company for the premiere. (Sadly, the pressures of artistic life in a big city were more than the man could bear, and he lost his reason soon after he arrived, dying in a British asylum in 1941.) The first performance, on July 22, 1919 at London’s Alhambra Theater conducted by Ernest Ansermet, was a great success (Spanish dance schools sprang up all around London within weeks), and The Three-Cornered Hat was an important milestone in establishing Falla’s international reputation.
The racy story of the ballet has its roots in the folk traditions of Spain. The curtain rises on the sunny esplanade beside a mill. The miller and his pretty wife are busy about their chores. A stately procession enters carrying the elderly Corregidor (the local magistrate) and his wife. The Corregidor is attracted to the miller’s wife, and slips back after his retinue has left to make his advances. The wife tells her husband to hide and watch her spurn the old man’s attempts at love. She dances a brilliant fandango and further tantalizes him with a bunch of grapes. He chases her, trips, and becomes aware of the teasing intrigue between husband and wife. The Corregidor departs, and the miller and his wife cheerfully resume the fandango.
Part II of the ballet takes place that evening, St. John’s Night. The miller and his wife are joined in celebration by their neighbors, and together dance the popular seguidillas. The miller performs a virile farruca. The festivities are interrupted by the local constabulary, who have come to arrest the miller on a charge trumped up by the Corregidor to get him out of the way. The Corregidor appears as soon as the miller is led away, but falls into the millstream as he is pursuing the girl. She runs off in search of her husband, while the Corregidor removes his sodden clothes, including his three-cornered hat — the symbol of his office — hangs them on a chair outside the mill, and jumps into the absent girl’s bed to ward off a chill. Meanwhile, the miller has escaped from his captors to return home, sees the Corregidor’s discarded clothes and believes himself betrayed by his wife. Vowing to get even, he exchanges his garments for those of the official, scribbles on the wall “The wife of the Corregidor is also very pretty,” and runs off in search of his conquest. The Corregidor emerges from the bedroom to find only the miller’s clothes. He puts them on just in time for the police, hunting their escaped prisoner, to arrest him by mistake. The miller’s wife returns, followed by the miller, and the two are happily reconciled in the joyous final dance while the villagers toss a straw effigy of the Corregidor in a blanket.
Falla’s masterful score captures both the dramatic action of the story and the colorful milieu of its setting. Gilbert Chase said of The Three-Cornered Hat that, like the best of Falla’s music, it is “an unceasing quest for the musical soul of Spain.” There are bits of many traditional Spanish melodies threaded through the score, but it is far more than a mere quodlibet of traditional tunes. Falla penetrated to the heart of the music of his homeland — the fiery gypsy cante jondo, the vibrant melodies and rhythms of Andalusia, the flamenco — and distilled them into a style that marks him as “a poet of Spanish emotion,” according to Georges Jean-Aubrey. The Neighbor’s Dance is a seguidillas, The Grapes is a fandango, The Miller’s Dance a farruca, and The Final Dance a jota, yet so quintessential an expression are they of their genres that each seems almost the example of the dance rather than merely an example of it. Enrique Franco’s summary of Falla’s style applies with special relevance to The Three-Cornered Hat. “Falla was no revolutionary,” Franco wrote, “but what he created was entirely new. His powerful originality depended not on matters of technique — even if in this he made startling innovations — but on substance.... It is as if Falla developed and exhausted all the possibilities of Spanish nationalism.”
©2009 Dr. Richard E. Rodda