Masterworks 4: Intersections
April 12 & 14, 2015

straussDon Juan, Op. 20  (1887-1888)

 Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Don Juan was the second tone poem that Strauss wrote (Macbeth from the previous year was his first).  Together with Death and Transfiguration composed the following year, Don Juan served to cement his reputation as a composer of exceptional talent, a worthy successor to Liszt and Wagner.  Strauss drew his portrait not from Tirso de Molina’s original characterization of the libertine (which music lovers know best from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), but from the verse-play of the Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850).  Lenau depicts Don Juan as the tragic Romantic Hero whose quest for the Ideal fuels an internal struggle that ultimately leads to his demise.  Lenau described his take on Don Juan:

 My Don Juan is no hot-blooded man eternally pursuing women.  There is a longing in him to find a woman who is to him womanhood incarnate, and to enjoy in this one all the women on the earth….  Because he does not find her, reeling from one to another, at last Disgust seizes hold of him and this Disgust is the Devil that fetches him.

In the play, Don Juan’s futile conquests leave him disillusioned with life itself.  Simply losing his will to live, he drops his sword during a duel with the son of a man he murdered, salvaging what meaning he can from his existence by willing his estate to his spurned lovers.

The brilliant and free-wheeling exuberance of Strauss’ Don Juan was a shock to the inexperienced orchestra that Strauss conducted in its premiere in 1889.   By all accounts, Strauss took it all in stride.  During one rehearsal, Strauss corrected some sluggishness by telling the musicians, “I would ask those of you who are married to play as if you had just become engaged and then all will be well.”  Without a doubt, the witty repartee that Strauss had with the orchestra during the rehearsals brought out the best in their performance of this tremendously difficult piece.  Strauss later commented, “I felt really sorry for the poor horns and trumpets.  They were quite blue in the face, the whole affair was so strenuous.”  Nevertheless, the premiere was an unmitigated success, and Don Juan entered the standard repertoire almost immediately.

Some music analysts have attempted to correlate each moment in Strauss’ tone poem with specific events in Lenau’s play, but Strauss himself never claimed to have written such a literal adaptation.  In fact, he later wrote with evident bitterness, “Programme music is a derogatory word in the mouths of those who have no ideas of their own.”  More likely than not, Strauss intended his tone poem to capture the spirit, not necessarily the progression, of Lenau’s play.  The feisty introduction and subsequent first theme in the violins, meant to evoke the essence of Lenau’s Don Juan, are as rousing and heroic as one can imagine.  Midway through the piece, a dramatic build-up leads to a second heroic Don Juan theme, stated boldly in the horns, which is almost immediately combined with elements of the opening.  Along the way, there are subdued themes stated by solo violin, flute, oboe, and clarinet, associated with the feminine ideal that Don Juan seeks.  After a recap of the main heroic themes, there is a grand pause followed by a gradual tapering in texture and volume, and a shift to E minor, finally ending on the single note, E.  The tragic hopelessness of the ending embodies Don Juan’s final line in Lenau’s play: “My deadly foe is in my power, and this too bores me, as does life itself.”

SibeliusFinlandia, Op. 26, No. 7 (1899)

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Only a year younger than Strauss, Sibelius must have been profoundly impressed when he heard the Berlin premiere of Don Juan in January 1890.  He had only just left Helsinki a few months before, and the music along with the applause-acknowledging appearance on stage of “a timid young man with a large shock of hair” left a lasting impression.  Ten years later, Sibelius began sketching his own version of a tone poem based on Don Juan, but over some months, the dark music he wrote depicting a visit to Don Juan by Death was transformed into a statement of nationalist resolve.  It was eventually incorporated into the second movement of his Symphony No. 2 of 1901.  By this time, Sibelius had become an artistic leader in the movement towards Finnish independence in large part due to his wildly popular symphonic poem Finlandia.

For hundreds of years, Sweden and Russia fought bitterly over the region of Scandinavia now known as Finland.  Assurances of constitutional autonomy for the vast area led to its temporary stability as a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire in 1809.  By the end of the century, however, the Tsars were clamping down.  In February 1899, Tsar Nicholas II declared in an official Manifesto that Russia could impose its will upon the Grand Duchy without the approval of local governments.  This decree only served to fuel the determination of Finns to establish a true independent country.  Finlandia was written in the midst of this nationalist fervor, and came to serve as a cultural rallying cry to strengthen the resolve of the resistance, and eventually as a celebratory anthem when Finland finally achieved its independence in 1917.

Finlandia was originally entitled “Finland Awakens”, composed as the finale of six selections of incidental music to accompany a series of staged historical vignettes.  Sibelius quickly reworked the piece into the tone poem that we now know, and its popularity was immediate.  Scholar James Hepokoski summarizes the piece’s thematic content succinctly: “political subjugation, sudden awakening and conflict, and a nationally centered hymnic liberation into the future.”  The music is simple and glorious, powerful and stirring.   The moving “Finlandia Hymn” that leads to the culminating triumph has become akin to a second national anthem for Finland, a country that still celebrates Sibelius as a national hero.

poulencGloria (1959-60)

Laudamus te
Domine Deus
Domini Fili Unigenite
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris

 Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Poulenc’s choral music began to blossom after dramatic and emotional events in late summer 1936.  While vacationing in southern France, Poulenc received word of the violent death of his friend, fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a car accident.  Deeply distressed, Poulenc made a pilgrimage to the nearby town of Rocamadour, a centuries-old monastic retreat associated with 4th-century Saint Amadour.  The pilgrimage had a profound and ultimately long-lasting effect on Poulenc, one that might be characterized as a religious epiphany.  He later told of the experience:

On this visit I was completely overcome by the wonder of this Sanctuary.  Perilously situated alongside a winding road up a rocky path, this almost unknown pilgrimage, one of the oldest in France, is a retreat inspiring in those who have been privileged to visit it a feeling of unbelievable peace. You enter the humble chapel built into the rocky mountain side through a small courtyard surrounded by pink laurel trees; and inside the chapel there is a wonderful Virgin carved out of black wood, the work of Saint Amadour, it is said, who had climbed up a tree to see Christ….  From that day onward, I returned often to Rocamadour….

On the very day he first arrived at Rocamadour, he began work on Litanies à la Vierge Noire for women’s chorus.  He would go on to compose his Mass in G (1937), Stabat Mater (1950), Dialogues des carmélites (1956), and Sept répons des ténèbres (1961), in addition to the Gloria, all large scale vocal works on liturgical themes.

Though his father came from a devoutly Catholic background, Poulenc had mostly abandoned his faith after his childhood.  While dramatic, the shift back to his religious upbringing he experienced in 1936 was not total, and he struggled with his faith.  Later in 1936, he would write to his good friend Georges Auric (a fellow member of the French composers group Les Six):  “I wish I could think like you and have your faith…but what can be done when one doesn’t believe?  If I had at least one belief—even contrary [to yours]—it would be something, but I absolutely do not.”  Nevertheless, Poulenc seemed to relish the opportunity to depict his spirituality in his music; his inspiration from a connection to the divine at Racamadour was genuine and deeply personal.  The sense that the Gloria conveys is not one simply of reverence but more of relevance:  we hear Poulenc’s own connection to the text in the music, not just a depiction of a religious abstraction.

In writing his Gloria, Poulenc follows in the footsteps of a number of composers—most notably Vivaldi—who have chosen to set its text in isolation rather than part of a complete Roman Catholic mass.  The Latin text for the doxology offers possibilities for contrasting musical moods, which Poulenc takes full advantage of, choosing to set each section of the text in mini-movements.  The opening Gloria, with text derived from the angels’ song at Christ’s birth in Luke, is a jubilant fanfare.  Most of the Laudamus te continues in this same vein, with a childlike playfulness, until a strikingly solemn a capella intonation of  “Gratias agimus tibi” (“We give thanks to You”) by the sopranos.  The combination of the sacred and profane here is pure Poulenc; he would later say of this movement in particular:  “I was thinking…of the Gozzoli frescoes in which angels stick out their tongues, and also of the serious Benedictines whom I saw playing soccer one day.”

In Domine Deus, Poulenc evokes God’s three appellations—as ruler, heavenly being, and almighty Father—with a setting that alternates between being reverential, celestial, and powerful.   The brief Domini Fili Unigenite repeats its text homophonically, with a celebratory insistence.   Exquisite word painting characterizes the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei section, with nearly every text phrase set with the same music at each repetition (notice the hopeful resolve on suscipe (“receive”) and the cleansing clarity of qui tollis peccata mundi (“who takes away the sins of the world”) for example).  The brass fanfares from the opening of the piece return in final section, Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, now extended with flowing a capellas interspersed.  Triumph gives way to peaceful reflection by the final “Amen”.

Mason Bates. Photo by RyanClose

Mothership (2010)

Mason Bates (b. 1977)

We close our concert featuring the young and the not-as-young with a composer whose approach to music combines elements that appeal across the generational divide, a composer who has made it his business to live in this stylistic intersection.  Mason Bates is among the dynamic younger generation of American classical composers who have embraced the liberation afforded by transgressing the boundaries between “classical” and “popular” genres of music making.  Bates spent time straddling these two worlds during his early career, finding ways to bridge them in ways that seem perfectly natural to him.   While working towards his Ph.D. at Berkeley, concentrating on symphonic composition, Bates would spend his nights mixing techno beats at Oakland clubs.  He maintains a presence in the Bay area club scene, appearing at clubs and lounges as DJ Masonic.  Elements of electronica, so prominent in the dance scene, have found their way into many of Bates’ symphonic scores, and he has explored the options available to him in the digital age by collaborating with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (YTSO).  Under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, the YTSO commissioned Bates’ Mothership as both an audition piece for putting the musicians together from around the globe and as an inspiration for soloists to submit improvisations.  Four improvisers were chosen to premiere the piece in March, 2011, with Tilson Thomas and the YTSO in Sydney, a performance viewed online by an audience of 1.8 million.

Bates likens the piece to a “techno-Scherzo”, where the “mothership”—represented by the orchestra—sets up a driving rhythmic theme, eventually sending out a signal to the soloist begin a cadenza over a more subdued texture.  There are two such solo sections, the “trios”, with the first projecting a jazz swing feel and the second a more melodic, lyrical feel.   Bates calls these improvisatory solos “docking episodes”.  In marrying synthetically produced sounds with acoustic, Bates creates a unique sonic palette here, remarking that “technological innovations have often given birth to musical innovations, and it is with a nod to history that Mothership will lift off.”