Notes: April 8

Posted on Apr 6, 2016 in Program Notes
Notes: April 8

April 8, 2016 • The One Ring

Concert program notes by Natalie Piontek

Overture to Les Francs Juges
Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)

In addition to his compositional talents, Hector Berlioz was a highly respected conductor, writer and critic. His Treatise on Instrumentation serves as one of the leading resources for composers on how to write compelling and evocative music for full orchestra.

HISTORY

Hector Berlioz’s rise to fame follows an unusual trajectory. Unlike the vast majority of composers, Berlioz never learned to play the piano, and he was frequently discouraged from learning music by his father. However, he had a passion for composition at an early age, teaching himself how to write proper melody and harmony from textbooks alone. Similarly, without any formal instruction, he learned to play flute and guitar, the latter at which he was considered quite proficient.

Instead of going to a conservatory in his late teens, the composer entered medical school. He did so to please his parents, but he unfortunately soon found himself rather bored and disgusted by medicine (a sentiment which was largely brought on when he witnessed the dissection of a corpse in class). In 1824, he left medical school. He began his formal studies at the renowned Paris Conservatory in 1826.

ABOUT THE COMPOSER

Berlioz is a French Romantic composer. He was chiefly inspired by the work of Christoph Willibald Gluck and Ludwig van Beethoven, and he is perhaps best known for shepherding the tradition of program music: music that follows an external narrative or story. His most famous composition is the Symphonie Fantastique, an orchestral composition about a poet whose unrequited love leads him into deep delirium and despair (based on his own love for actress Harriet Smithson!).

ABOUT THE PIECE

Les Francs Juges was originally intended to be the overture to an opera. Berlioz was going to write the accompanying music to the libretto by his friend Humbert Ferrand, but he never completed the work. Les Francs Juges exists as a standalone composition in its own right, and it is also the first work that Berlioz ever composed for full orchestra.

The title, Les Francs Juges, literally means “The Free Judges.” It refers to the Vehmic courts, assemblies of vigilante crime fighters that existed in Germany in the Middle Ages (they were also called the “secret courts” or “silent courts”).

The piece opens in the sinister key of F minor, with small exchanges of two-note motives between the strings. Snappy flourishes and abrupt runs in the strings throughout the piece give the work its propulsive energy.  Soon, the brass enters on a bombastic and militant B-flat minor chord, luring us deeper into the ominous atmosphere. However, the mood is soon lightened again, with the violins playing a cheerful theme in F major, and the trumpets engaging in a sprightly dance. The movement concludes with woodwinds, brass, and strings coming together for a joyous and raucous fanfare.

Suite Modale
Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959)

Ernest Bloch had a fascination with exploring inventive chromaticism, low sonorities, and rich tone colors. Perhaps because of his interest in the deeper sonorities, he made significant contributions to the viola repertoire — a lower-voiced instrument rarely composed for as a solo instrument. Among these works are his Suite for Viola and Orchestra and Works for Viola and Piano.

ABOUT ERNEST BLOCH

Ernest Bloch was born in 1880 in Geneva, Switzerland. His music carries with it distinct influence from his Jewish heritage along with a number of post-Romantic influences, specifically from composers Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss. In 1916, Bloch moved to the United States, where he first toured as conductor of the Maud Allen dance company, and eventually settled in New York.

Bloch was as passionate an instructor as he was a composer. He taught theory and composition at New York’s Mannes College of Music from 1917 to 1920, was founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1920 to 1925, directed the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1925 to 1930, and taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1940 until his retirement in 1952. His students include such notable composers as Douglas Moore and Frederick Jacobi. He was also a talented student himself, having studied with master violinist and famed composer Eugene Ysaÿe in Brussels.

ABOUT THE WORK

The Suite Modale for flute and orchestra is an archetypal example of Bloch’s interest in chromaticism and evocative tone colors. It begins ambiguously on the dominant chord in the key of A minor, with the flute weaving in and out of the sustained chords in the orchestra, giving the first movement a sentiment of wandering, of never quite wanting to settle down. By opening with the dominant chord, the movement already feels unsteady, as by nature we are inclined to hear the dominant chord wanting to resolve to the tonic, or the chord of the home key. Also notable is that the flute rarely reaches to a note above a high D; the writing is concentrated on the flute’s lower register, which is arguably the realm for the flute that is capable of the most variations in tone color. Slight alterations in technique can change the sound from light to dark, hollow to dense, smooth to gritty, wispy to clear.

Bloch wrote this work for the flutist Elaine Shaffer in 1956. It was written as he was battling cancer toward the end of his life, which explains the brooding, thoughtful sentiment that pervades the first and second movements. However, the last movement is much brighter than the first two movements, with the flute finally beginning to explore the jubilant sonorities in the higher register. It closes in the same haunting yet mysterious way it began, yet this time with a feeling of resolution.

Symphony No. 1, “The Lord of the Rings”
Johan de Meij b. 1953 

Johan de Meij wrote his “The Lord of the Rings” Symphony from 1984 to 1988 — long before Peter Jackson began his wildly successful film franchise based on Tolkien’s novels in 2001. It is structured in five movements, with each movement depicting a particular character.

ABOUT THE COMPOSER

Born in 1953 in South Holland, de Meij is a revered conductor, composer, and trombonist. He has written primarily for the orchestration of wind ensemble, with four symphonies composed for wind ensemble to date. Each of his symphonies has a programmatic title. The Symphony No. 1 is commonly referred to as his “Lord of the Rings” Symphony and is based on the internationally celebrated novels by J.R.R. Tolkien; his Symphony No. 2 he called “The Big Apple” (based on New York City); the Symphony No. 3 is his “Planet Earth” Symphony; and the most recent Symphony No. 4 has the nickname of “Sinfonie der Lieder,” or “Symphony of Songs.”

ABOUT THE MUSIC

The opening of the first movement, “Gandalf,” is a clear nod to de Meij’s training as a trombonist: it begins with a brilliant fanfare in the brass, followed by lightning-fast 16th-note runs in the upper register of the flutes. The low strings introduce the theme, accompanied by subdued tones in the French horn. A solo trumpet then adopts the theme which is countered by pensive yearnings in the strings.

Eventually the violins take up the melody as well, with the entire orchestra singing at a proud fortissimo. An abrupt flourish in the strings, an ominous heartbeat in the timpani, and foreboding murmurs in the tubas and low brass suggest that trouble lies ahead. A rapid chase begins, with the strings ushering the movement forward with off-beat 16th-note motives. These motives eventually climax into the brass singing a noble, hymnal tune, and the violins recalling the opening theme.

The second movement opens with a mysterious call in the E-flat clarinet — a smaller, higher-pitched clarinet — supported by sustained tones in the low strings. A couple of chirps in the piccolo, brief soliloquys in the oboes, and then a unified dance in the woodwinds suggest different woodland creatures. We are clearly in the forested setting of the Elvenwood.

The third movement, “Gollum,” based on the demented and personality-switching creature from the novel, is depicted by a variety of woodwinds and some unusual techniques. One of these techniques is flutter-tonguing in the woodwinds, a stuttering sound created by rapidly firing one’s tongue while blowing air into the instrument. Another technique that depicts Gollum’s mentally deteriorating character are the glissandi — slides between notes — and the rapid tremolos in the strings, in which the bow is rapidly moved back and forth on a string.

The fourth movement, “Journey in the Dark,” depicts Frodo wandering through darkened forests, again signaled by ominous tones and outbursts in the low brass.

The fifth and final movement, “Hobbits,” recalls the heroic theme from the first movement in full glory, and a dance is introduced by the piano and percussion, bringing the work to a light-hearted, cheerful conclusion.