Our concert begins with Edvard Grieg’s genre-bending Holberg Suite, in which the composer mashes up a traditional baroque structure with the lush romantic sound popular in his day. We follow with two rich, raw and layered masterpieces — George Walker’s Lyric for Strings and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Next on the program is the world premiere of Threnody by Christopher Marshall, one composer’s empathetic response to racial injustice and our country’s collective pain as we continue to see brutality against our many and varied fellow citizens of color. The evening concludes with the bright, familiar and joyous serenade, Eine kleine Nachtmusik by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Program Notes • Strings at Stanley
Holberg Suite, op. 40 (“From Holberg’s Time”)
1884 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754), who wrote droll comedies that earned him the nickname, “the Molière of the North.” Holberg’s hometown, Bergen, planned a grand celebration and commissioned a cantata for male voices from Edvard Grieg to be performed outdoors next to a new monument to the playwright. “I can see it all before me,” Grieg wrote to a friend, “snow, hail, storm and every kind of foul weather, huge male choir with open mouths, the rain streaming into them, myself conducting with waterproof cape, winter coat, galoshes, and umbrella! And a cold afterward, of course, or goodness knows what kind of illness! Oh well, it’s one way of dying for one’s country!” Grieg’s predictions about the premiere proved correct, and the cantata quickly sank into obscurity.
Grieg composed a second work in honor of Holberg, a suite of French Baroque-style dances for solo piano. Grieg thought little of it, describing the music as “a perruque piece,” in reference to the elaborate powdered wigs favored by the aristocracy of the 18th century. Over time, however, the suite, originally titled In Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style, has become one of Grieg’s most popular and beloved works, particularly the version he arranged for string orchestra.
The opening Prelude creates a mood of excited anticipation with agitated rhythms accompanying a lyrical up-tempo series of melodies. The Sarabande follows — a slow, reflective interlude in ¾ time featuring solo passages for cellos. A sparkling Gavotte and its contrasting musette feature a drone in the lower strings, in imitation of a bagpipe. The melancholy Air, the only movement in a minor key, combines Baroque style and poignant cello solos with Grieg’s penchant for wistful melodies. In the closing Rigaudon, the solo violin and viola evoke the rowdy folk sonorities of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.
At a Glance
- Composer: born June 15, 1843, Bergen, Norway; died September 4, 1907, Bergen
- Work composed: 1884, originally for solo piano. Grieg arranged it for string orchestra in 1885. The suite is dedicated to Erika Nissen, a Norwegian pianist who gave the premiere of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in Norway.
- World premiere: Grieg premiered the solo piano version of Op. 40 during a commemorative festival in Bergen on December 7, 1884. The orchestra version was first performed on March 13, 1885, also in Bergen.
- Estimated duration: 19 minutes
Lyric for Strings
George Theophilus Walker pursued three successful careers namely performance, composition, and teaching. After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory, Walker attended the Curtis Institute, becoming the first African-American student to earn an Artist’s Diploma in piano and composition. At Curtis, Walker studied piano with Rudolf Serkin and composition with Gian Carlo Menotti. Walker continued his education at the Eastman School of Music, where he earned a D.M.A. in composition, the first African American to do so. In the 1950s, Walker traveled to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger.
Walker’s life list of accomplishments includes many more “firsts:” he was the first Black instrumentalist to play a recital in New York’s Town Hall; the first black soloist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, and the first black instrumentalist to obtain major concert management, with National Concert Artists. In 1996, Walker became the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In 2000, Walker was elected to the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, the first living composer so honored.
Like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Walker’s Lyric for Strings, initially titled Lament for Strings, began as a movement for string quartet. Walker wrote his String Quartet No. 1 in 1946 as a graduate student at the Curtis Institute. He dedicated the Lament to his grandmother, who died the previous year. The quartet premiered on a live radio performance of Curtis’ student orchestra in 1946, and the following year received its concert premiere at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
As a stand-alone piece rebranded with a new title, Lyric for Strings quickly became one of the most regularly programmed works by a living composer. Melodies interweave among the instruments, and the pensive atmosphere captures both the composer’s anguish at the passing of his beloved grandmother, as well as the joy her memory evokes. The romantic melodies and lush harmonic underpinnings produce a sensitive but never mawkish atmosphere of love and loss.
At a Glance
- Composer: b. June 22, 1922, Washington, D.C.; died August 23, 2018, Montclair, NJ
- Work composed: 1946. Dedicated “to my grandmother.”
- World premiere: 1946. Seymour Lipkin led a student orchestra from the Curtis Institute of Music in a radio concert.
- Estimated duration: 6 minutes
Adagio for Strings
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, perhaps the most recognizable work written by an American classical composer, has a poignant ability to evoke profound sadness. This quality is why one American broadcaster dubbed it our “national funeral music.” Americans associate the Adagio with the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, and the attacks on September 11, 2001. Many also connect it with the Vietnam War, thanks to Oliver Stone’s 1986 film, Platoon, which featured the Adagio in its score. In the 84 years since Barber composed the Adagio, it has evolved into a cathartic musical expression of grief.
Ten years before fellow Curtis alum George Walker composed his Lyric for Strings, Barber wrote his Adagio as the second movement of his String Quartet in B minor. Two years later, Barber arranged the Adagio for string orchestra and gave the score to Arturo Toscanini in hopes that the conductor would perform it on the radio with the NBC Symphony. Twenty-eight-year-old Barber was a rising star whose music had already attracted favorable notice, but he knew that Toscanini’s endorsement of his work would launch him onto the national stage. Biographer Barbara Heyman writes, “Toscanini’s broadcasts were generally regarded with almost religious reverence, but the ten o’clock broadcast on the evening of 5 November 1938 held additional significance, for it marked recognition by the Italian conductor that there was enough merit in works by an American composer to bring them to the attention of a national audience.”
In later life, Barber came to regret that so much of his reputation rested on the Adagio. According to scholar Thomas Lawson, in his book The Saddest Music Ever Written, “After the lament took musical wing in 1936, it became an emotional albatross from which he was never free … Barber even forbade the Adagio from being played at his funeral, so that at least in death he would be free of it.”
At a Glance
- Composer: born March 9, 1910, West Chester, PA; died January 23, 1981, New York City
- Work composed: The Adagio for Strings was originally the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet in B minor, which he composed in Europe in 1936. It was first performed on December 14 of that year in Rome. Two years later, Barber arranged it for string orchestra.
- Instrumentation: string orchestra
- Estimated duration: 7 minutes
The word ‘threnody’ comes from Greek, meaning ‘mourning song’. 2020 has certainly delivered much sorrow: chief among its grim milestones, the toll of the coronavirus pandemic. This year has also shone a light on the long and terrible history of racial injustice in the United States, its legacy persisting today. For me, it was hearing of the death in police custody of Elijah McClain that brought this reality home. A young Black man known by all his friends as a gentle and sensitive soul, a self-taught violinist who in his lunch breaks used music to comfort lonely kittens in a pet shop… how could someone like this meet such a violent end? His story was the most direct inspiration for this music.
The selfless actions of doctors and nurses during the pandemic have been a reminder of humanity’s resilience in the face of tragedy. And the huge demonstrations across the nation demanding racial justice have given fresh impetus to that cause. Sometimes it is tears that nourish the seeds of hope and healing.
This music uses a 12-tone theme in a triadic-tonal context. The theme is heard in its entirety as the opening melody. In the second section, in retrograde (and retrograde-inverted) forms, it forms a canon, starting in the cello. After the return of the main melody, a livelier section sees those retrograde themes as an accompanying figure in the pizzicato cellos. The music concludes with the theme in the solo violin. It is left incomplete, ending on the 6th tone.
Eine kleine Nachtmusik
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
We might expect a work as well-known as Eine kleine Nachtmusik to hold no surprises, but in fact almost everything about it is a mystery. We don’t know why Mozart wrote it, or for whom. The instrumentation is unclear; did Mozart intend it for a string quintet with added bass, or a string orchestra? (either ensemble works well.) We also don’t know why Mozart, who loved opera, and who was up to his ears working on Don Giovanni during the summer of 1787, would set it aside for two weeks to produce a piece of after-dinner music.
In Mozart’s time, composers used the term “Nachtmusik” (night music) synonymously with “serenade.” Classical era serenades — instrumental works of several contrasting movements — featured pleasant, unobtrusive melodies. Unlike concertos or symphonies heard in concert halls, serenades served as musical background for private parties or sumptuous multi-course meals. It is possible that Mozart was commissioned to compose Eine kleine Nachtmusik for such an event, and since Mozart’s financial situation was always precarious, the opportunity to earn easy money would have been too tempting to decline.
When he completed K. 525, Mozart detailed its movements in his catalogue: “An Allegro, Minuet and Trio, Romance, Minuet and Trio, and Finale.” Although Mozart mentioned two different minuet and trios, the score for K. 525 includes only the second. The whereabouts of the first minuet, and when or why it was cut, are unknown.
In its remaining four movements, Eine kleine Nachtmusik showcases, by turns, the sparkling clarity, vivacious wit, and lyrical expressiveness of Mozart at his best.
At a Glance
- Composer: born January 27, 1756, Salzburg; died December 5, 1791, Vienna
- Work composed: Mozart completed K. 525 on August 10, 1787
- Instrumentation: strings (either a quartet with added bass, or a string orchestra)
- Estimated duration: 20 minutes
© 2020 Elizabeth Schwartz
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