Ottorino Respighi was one of the most imaginative orchestrators of the first part of the twentieth century. While most of his musical studies were undertaken in Italy, he spent two crucial years in Russia where he took lessons in orchestration from Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Respighi developed a masterful technique in the use of instrumental colors and sonorities. Firmly rooted in the late-Romantic tradition, he maintained this style with only marginal influence from the revolutionary changes in music that occurred during his lifetime.
Respighi was a musical nationalist, keenly interested in reviving Italy’s musical heritage, especially its instrumental music. Beginning in 1906 he undertook to transcribe and arrange music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, editing the works of Claudio Monteverdi and Tomaso Antonio Vitali. In 1917 he published the first of his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, based on Italian and French lute music, mostly from the early seventeenth century. In 1927 he composed Gli uccelli (The Birds), a five-movement suite using eighteenth-century keyboard works imitating birdsongs. Indeed, most of his works are based on the music of the past.
Composed in 1914-16, Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) is the first of a trilogy celebrating Rome’s unique history and culture. The others are Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) and Feste romane (Roman Festivals.)
Respighi noted in the introduction to the score that he tried to express in music the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome’s fountains, at the hour in which the character of each is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape or appears most enchanting to the observer. He also added some descriptive words to each section. Fontane is scored for a large, diverse orchestra that includes bass clarinet, two harps, celesta, piano, optional organ and, of course, glittering percussions.
"The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn:" Muted rustling in the violins and soft woodwinds give an impressionistic and bucolic picture of early morning. Respighi wrote in the score: “Droves of cattle passing and disappearing in the fresh and damp mists of the Roman dawn.” The modal oboe melody and open fifths recall the music of the Middle Ages. Birdcalls also punctuate the musical image.
"The Triton Fountain at Morn:" A sudden loud blast on the horns above a brilliantly orchestrated trill for piccolo and triangle introduce the Triton Fountains "...like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons, who run around, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance amidst the jets of water.”
"The Trevi Fountain at mid-day:" An undulating solemn theme introduces the image of the Fountain. The theme passes from the woodwinds to the brass, assuming a triumphal character. “Trumpets ring; across the shimmering surface of the water passing Neptune’s chariot drawn by sea horses and followed by a train of sirens and tritons. The procession vanishes while faint triumphal blasts are heard in the distance.”
"The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset:" The final movement opens with a dreamlike English horn melody accompanied by "trickling water" depicted in the glockenspiel and celesta. “It is the nostalgic hour of sunset, with the air full of tolling bells, birds twittering and leaves rustling. Then everything dies peacefully into the silence of the night.”
The music of Columbia, South Carolina native son, Andy Akiho, fills an important niche in contemporary classical music: the inclusion of percussion instruments in chamber ensembles. A brilliant percussionist, Akiho composes for both pitched and non-pitched instruments, especially marimba, steel drum (pan drum) and snare drum. His eclectic instrument combinations include: string quartet and marimba; strings, trombone and tuba; electronically generated speech and cello. In fact, each of his compositions features a different combination of instruments.
Ahitro became captivated by the unique and mesmerizing timbre of the steel pan as an undergraduate visiting Trinidad and Tobago. “It became the most natural way for me to communicate. I love the number of overtones the steel pan has and the fact that it blends surprisingly well with all the families of Western Classical instruments, as well as with non-Western instruments.”
Composed for the National Symphony Orchestra in 2015, Beneath Lighted Coffers (Recessed panels in a ceiling or vault; Google “Pantheon, Coffers” for some great images) was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. It is the city’s best-preserved ancient building, which Ahito’s visited during the 2014-15 season as the recipient of the Luciano Berio Prize. The five movements are:. It is the city’s best-preserved ancient building, which Ahito’s visited during the 2014-15 season as the recipient of the Luciano Berio Prize. The composer wrote program notes for the five movement work:
I. Portico. Inspired by the Pantheon's portico, the entryway that one sees walking up a once narrow path to the building. The portico is inviting and unassuming, and the grandeur of the dome cannot be seen from afar, creating a somewhat unexpected experience in the rotunda. What captivates me most about the Greek-inspired entrance are the enormous, monolithic, Corinthian granite columns that were shipped from Egypt.
II. Twenty-Eight. The architecture mirrors the 140 trapezoidal coffers, or sunken panels, geometrically arranged in five concentric circles of twenty-eight in the Pantheon's concrete dome. The coffers create an optical illusion that draws the observer towards the dome's center, and they look different depending on the light of day streaming in through the oculus. Because the coffers are sunken voids within the concrete, they are also a critical part of the architectural structure of the large domed ceiling and evoke history, time, lightness, and possibility. Musically, I derived the melodic material of this movement from a 28-note palindromic scale that spans the entire range of the orchestra, the movement is built in five groups of 140 beats, often sub-divided into five groups of twenty-eight.
III. Oculus. The many different skies that appear through the oculus continually change the way the Pantheon is experienced. They inspired this central movement, whose music comes from a more personal and intuitive place, mimicking the unpredictable clouds and light variances above and through the exposed sky in the oculus. The oculus also acts as an architectural keystone, although it is a purely empty space that has held the entire unreinforced concrete dome together for nearly two thousand years. Like the oculus, this middle movement is central to the structure of the entire composition.
IV. Corelli. The brief fourth movement drew inspiration from the Pantheon's marbled floor patterns and the music of the Italian Baroque composer and violinist Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), who is buried in the Pantheon. I have always been a fan of Corelli's chamber music, and I pay homage to him by alluding to the "Grave" movement from his Concerto Grosso No. 3. The original lays out a melodic line of 45 notes for the violin, which I associated with the 45 circles of the Pantheon's patterned marbled floor, imagining rain falling from the oculus above, shifting these notes and timbres around before disappearing in the drainage system beneath the floor.
V. Permanence. Writers and historians often use adjectives like "permanence" and "progeny" to describe the Pantheon because it is the best-preserved and most influential building from ancient Rome: it has miraculously endured numerous years, storms, fires, wars, governments, barbarians, and popes. The Pantheon brings together the past and the future, and I am very grateful to have had an opportunity to experience the history of the building and its architectural greatness in writing this piece in the present day.
Composer, organist and pianist Camille Saint-Saëns was phenomenally precocious and gifted in everything he undertook. He was a man of wide culture, well versed in literature, the arts and scientific developments. As a child prodigy he wrote his first piano compositions at age three and at age ten made his formal debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, playing Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos. In his youth he was considered an innovator, but by the time he reached maturity he had become a conservative pillar of the establishment, trying to maintain the classical musical tradition in France and expressing open disdain for the new trends in music, including the “malaise” of Wagnerism. He premiered his five piano concertos with impeccable technique and effortless grace. But neither his compositions nor his pianism were ever pinnacles of passion or emotion. Berlioz noted that Saint-Saëns “...knows everything but lacks inexperience.”
Saint-Saëns was a consummate craftsman and a compulsive worker. “I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples,” he commented. He was a proponent of “art for art's sake” but his views on expression and passion in art conflicted with the prevailing literary and emotive Romantic ideas. He wrote in his memoirs: “Music is something besides a source of sensuous pleasure and keen emotion, and this resource, precious as it is, is only a chance corner in the wide realm of musical art. He who does not get absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not really fond of music.” And also: “Beware of all exaggeration.” His output is large and diverse, including chamber works for most orchestral instruments. Although his music was often perceived as passé, he was the first composer to write an original film score in 1908 for L’assassinat du Duc de Guise (The assassination of the Duke of Guise).
Saint-Saëns professed to uphold the classical virtues of clarity, restraint and elegance, but none of these virtues appear in the C minor Symphony, a romantic work with colorful and grandiose orchestration throughout. The organ part is integrated into the orchestra and does not emerge as a solo counterforce, as in a concerto. Appropriately, Saint-Saëns dedicated it to the memory of Franz Liszt, whose virtuosic organ music served as his model. The symphony was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society and premiered by that orchestra in May 1886 with the composer conducting from the keyboard.
There is thematic interconnection between the Symphony's movements, and the traditional four movements are fused into two: “[the Symphony] embraces in principle the four traditional movements, but the first, halted in its development, serves as introduction to the Adagio, while the Scherzo is abandoned by the same process to lead to the Finale,” the composer wrote. Saint-Saëns borrowed from Liszt the technique of thematic transformation in which a single theme, or motto, recurs in various guises as an essential unifying device. But despite his insistence that the Symphony is a two-movement work, it is easier to think of it as having four movements since there are four distinctly discernible sections each with its own mood and musical structure. A brief slow introduction hint at the motto in the solo oboe and flute. The following Allegro immediately presents the motto in hushed, stuttering strings, creating an anxious tension that pervades even the lilting second theme. The Allegro comprises a continuous stream of transformations of the motto and via a reprise of the introduction, the movement blends into the Poco Adagio without pause. This is the first appearance of the organ accompanying an expansive new melody in the lower strings . After a few minutes, the motto quietly returns, eventually combining with the Adagio melody, where it is played pizzicato by the basses and cellos.
The stuttering rhythm returns in the third movement with a new theme, but is immediately accompanied by the first movement theme and a return to the ominous mood of the opening. The Trio, yet another iteration of the first movement theme, makes a surprising introduction of the piano into the orchestral mix. The movement ends on a serene note, with the first movement theme now in the major mode, anticipating the final movement.
After a grand entrance on the organ, the strings, accompanied by the piano, transform the first movement theme into a majestic chorale. Saint-Saëns even creates a fugue for it in its new guise. In a sense, the Symphony No. 3 can be understood as a musical drama, in which a protagonist (the first movement theme) eventually triumphs over adversity. Over the top? Perhaps, but then, Saint-Saëns dedicated his Symphony to one of the nineteenth century's more melodramatic composers.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016
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