Notes: April 3

Posted on Mar 25, 2015 in Program Notes, Uncategorized
Notes: April 3

April 3 • Reformations

Concert program notes by Leigh Townsend

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor 1708
J.S. Bach/Leopold Stokowski  
(1685–1750)   (1882–1977)
Transcribing old music for modern instruments and modern audiences is essential for keeping classical music alive. From obscurity to Fantasia, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor is a splendid showpiece of orchestral potential.

Like peanut butter and jelly, the toccata and fugue of the late baroque period made a satisfying (and sticky) pair. The toccata was traditionally a fantasy in the style of a cadenza; a virtuosic flourish of technical and chromatic brilliance. A bright and tangy marmalade, if you will. The fugue was grounded, predictable, and seamless. A nice smooth and creamy peanut butter to hold the parts together.

The Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, was originally composed for organ sometime before 1708, written when Bach was younger than 20 years old, although it was never published in his lifetime. Fast forward over 100 years later, and thanks to performances of the work by Felix Mendelssohn, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor is published in 1833 and is now one of the most recognizably famous works in the organ repertoire.

The now standard orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra was made famous in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia. Stokowski’s orchestration went beyond a simple transcription; he calls for a very large orchestra with extended instrument ranges across the winds and brass:

2 Flutes+ 2 Piccolos; 3 Oboes +English Horn; 3 clarinets + bass clarinet; 3 bassoons +contrabassoon; 6 horns; 3 trumpets; 4 trombones; 1 tuba; timpani; 2 harps; celeste; strings

Bernard Herrmann once wrote: “We admit that Bach never heard the Toccata and Fugue in D minor in the way that Stokowski has realized it but Bach must have had that kind of sound in his mind. He certainly did not have the sound of some baroque church organ with a couple of tired little boys trying to pump air in at the back – but rather he must have imagined a great cosmic sound and Stokowski’s transcription is a metamorphosis of that sound.”

Duration – 9 minutes

Composer fact: Bach had 20 children. One of them was the music teacher of Mozart!


Three Black Kings
Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington  
(1899–1974)    (1919–1996)
EllingtonA master beyond the big band, Duke Ellington originally sketched Three Black Kings as a ballet. The orchestrated version on this program paints a vibrant and joyful picture through sounds.

Three Black Kings was the last major work written by Duke Ellington.  As he lay dying in his hospital bed in 1974, he gave his son, Mercer, final instructions on how it was to be completed and orchestrated.

The first movement with its African rhythmic motifs depicts Balthazar, the Black king of the Nativity. The wistful and lush strings are interrupted in a rhythmic punctuation that will remind listeners of a Stravinsky ballet.

The second movement is concerned with Solomon, King of Israel. The mysterious opening bars give way to a lonely violin solo, followed by other lone instruments before settling into a typical Ellington ballroom dance feel.

The third movement celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. with a warm and comfortable feeling. The solo clarinet, capable of sounding so sorrowful, is instead celebratory. The civil rights activist was Ellington’s good friend; his inspiring triumphs are memorialized in the uplifting and bluesy finale.

From: “About Three Black Kings.” Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre website.

Duration – 15 minutes

Composer fact: Duke Ellington played the El Patio Ballroom at Lakeside Park in Denver in 1942


“Escapades” from Catch Me If You Can
John Williams
Catch Me If You Can is set in a nostalgically tinged version 1960s. Williams’ music was written as an impressionistic postcard of the progressive jazz movement, which was so popular at that time.

Catch_Me_If_You_Can_2002_movie“Escapades” was composed by John Williams for the movie Catch Me If You Can in 2002. It was based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., who drops out of school and within a few years poses as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, and passes millions in bad checks before being jailed through the persistent pursuit of the FBI agent Carl Hanratty.

SAX 101
The saxophone was named after the Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax, who invented it in about 1840 and had it patented in 1846. Whether as a solo instrument or as part of the orchestra, it seldom appears in traditional concert halls, other than in a wind ensemble. Nonetheless, before the instrument found its true home – the world of jazz – it was to be heard in classical music. Its first prominent appearance was in Bizet’s incidental music to Daudet’s “L’Arlésienne” in 1872, yet it failed to become an established member of the orchestra. There are, however, countless chamber works which include the saxophone, and many concertos for saxophone and orchestra.

Escapades” is considered as a concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra. It bridges the worlds of film and concert music. It was written in three movements:

The first movement is titled Closing In. It consists of fast repetitions of triplet motifs with an interval of a 3rd. The light-hearted and slinky music relates to the often humorous sleuthing; the FBI always one step behind Frank. The addition of finger snapping and hissing from the members of the orchestra give this movement a touch of mystery.

Reflections is the title of the second movement. It is a slow movement with lyrical solo lines from the saxophone, supported by the quiet strings and interjections from the marimba. It refers to the fragile relationships of the Abagnale’s broken family.

The 3rd movement is titled Joy Ride, and it is! A playful and mischievous theme accompanies Frank’s wild flights of fantasy that took him around the world before the law finally reined him in.

Duration – 15 minutes

Composer Fact: Catch Me If You Can was the 20th collaboration between composer John Williams and director Steven Spielberg.


Symphony No. 5 “Reformation”
Felix Mendelssohn    
Only performed once in his lifetime, Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony is as close to programmatic as any of his works get. Chorale tunes and snippets abound in this soaring and subtle symphony.

Friedrich Nietzsche described Felix Mendelssohn as a Zwischenfall, or that which falls between. He was speaking about his place in time, between the musical giants of Beethoven and Wagner. But it can also describe Mendelssohn the man. He is well known as the 19th century’s most famous Jewish composer, and also as one of the most profoundly Christian ones. Born Jewish and baptized Protestant at age 7, he lived somewhere between the two ideas. As an artist, he waffled between conservative and progressive.

Hector Berlioz described Mendelssohn as “an admirable boy; his skill as a performer is as great as his musical genius, and that’s really saying a lot.” It seems, however, that posterity has trouble accepting the happiness of Felix. Should not a real Romantic be poor, ill, unhappy, and misunderstood? Wagner, the anti-Semite, never forgave Mendelssohn his Jewish roots; Debussy saw him as an “elegant and facile notary”; and for many musicologists he was but a pale and vapid representative of musical Romanticism. Felix was a middleman, a man who fell between.

Composed in 1830, Mendelssohn’s fifth symphony, the Reformation, was actually the composer’s second in the order of composition (aside from the 12 string symphonies written between the ages of 12 and 14). It was originally intended as a commission for the 300 year anniversary of the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the principal demands of the Reformation written by Melanchthon and Luther and presented to Emperor Charles V. Mendelssohn, who had converted to Protestantism in 1816, gave the work the provisional title Reformation, and although he never published the work, the name stuck.

Mendelssohn only published 2 symphonies in his lifetime. Perhaps he was too busy performing, perhaps he could not commit to formalizing his completed pieces, or more likely – perhaps he was too filled with anxiety to follow on the heels of Beethoven 9. This symphony was originally conceived following Mendelssohn’s success with a set of concert overtures, however, the more Classical styling and approach to the subject gave both musicians and audiences pause. The piece never even made it out of rehearsals in Paris, where it was supposed to be premiered.

Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny was clearly dissatisfied with the work, calling it “the beast” — a view her brother ultimately came to share when he described it as “a fat, bristly animal; an effective cure for a weak stomach.” Ten years later, he reaffirmed his negative opinion of the work, calling it “a complete misfit.” He explicitly denied publication of the work. Mendelssohn’s friend Julius Rietz and his son Paul eventually had it published after the composer’s death in 1868.

The symphony opens with a slow introduction in D major, focusing on the woodwinds after the brief awakening section. A declamatory fanfare introduces the first statement of the “Dresden Amen,” a nod towards Luther. Full of contrapuntal motion, the key of D minor is firmly established, reversing the Classical expectations of introduction in minor keys and body in major.

The second movement, entitled Allegro vivace, is a fleeting scherzo somewhere between a march and a dance, that appears to break with the solemn character of the work; and yet, the “Dresden Amen” appears once again in fragments.

The very brief third movement, marked Andante, is a mournful, nostalgic lament for strings which leads directly into the finale, an Andante con moto based on the Lutheran hymn Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott. Like the opening movement, the hymn tune is delicately played only by the woodwinds, adding in more and more instruments with each statement for an organ-like effect. The chorale sounds develop in to a fugue-like section which breaks like waves before the entire chorale melody returns as a cantus firmus in the trombones. Mendelssohn’s frequent use of counterpoint and fugato passages, in combination with direct references of chorale melodies, lends the work its dignified, solemn character.

Duration – 27 minutes

Composer fact: Mendelssohn deeply disliked this symphony; he declared he would rather burn it than see it published.