At the end of the Great War Igor Stravinsky underwent a radical shift in his compositional techniques and aesthetic aims. Gone were the gargantuan orchestras that had performed the lush, colorful scores of his pre-War ballets Firebird and Petrushka. Gone, as well, the dense chord structures and revolutionary rhythmic tumult that brought international critical attention—and volleys of projectile produce—hurtling to the Paris stage where Rite of Spring had premiered a scant few years before.
Stravinsky’s new neoclassical style featured leaner chamber ensembles, more transparent textures, astringent harmonies, and a new respect for music of the past, qualities perfectly reflected in his ballet Pulcinella, which premiered in May 1920 at the Paris Opera. With a cast of rascally characters from commedia dell’ arte, and music largely based on the gracious scores of Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), this ballet soon became one of the composer’s most popular works, spawning a host of arrangements, including this Suite Italienne, which Stravinsky assembled in collaboration with cellist Gregor Piatagorsky in 1932.
In arranging the music of Pergolesi and his contemporaries, Stravinsky preserved the clear phrasing, courtly cadential patterns, and ornamental trills of the Baroque Neapolitan style, but laced the score with spikey accents on weak notes of the bar, while stomping on the toes of the harmony by means of exaggerated passing and neighbour notes in the bass—a crafty way of maximizing sonic resonance without thickening the texture.
The suite begins with the ballet’s overture, called Introduzione. Clearly audible, even in this chamber version, is the Baroque ritornello style of the original orchestral scoring, with alternating sections played by the whole orchestra (ripieni) and a small group of soloists (concertino).
The Serenata derives from the tenor canzonetta Mentre l’erbetta pasce l’agnella (While the little lamb grazes), from Pergolesi’s opera Il Flaminio (1735). The gentle lilt of its dotted rhythm identifies it as a sicilienne, but its pastoral tranquility is tinged with a hint of melancholy.
A characteristic feature of Neapolitan opera buffa was the prominent role it gave to the bass voice, exploited largely for its humorous potential in arias studded with large leaps and other comic effects. In the opening section of the Air, the cello plays the role of Bastiano from Il Flaminio, a stropping, galumphing man-servant who awkwardly pleads the case of his pining heart to the love of his life. All is not well, though, as the following lyrical love lament from Pergolesi’s Lo frate ’nnamurato (1732) makes pathetically clear. Our swaggering swain is left alone by the end, humming a sad refrain from the preceding Serenata.
The mood picks up noticeably in the Tarantella which with its whirlwind pace and sustained use of the cello’s high register is the virtuoso showpiece of the suite.
The Minuetto e finale is one of the great musical transformation scenes in the Stravinsky canon. Opening at a measured pace in a mood somewhere between sustained elegy and proud strutting march, it builds and builds until exploding in an exuberant fanfare of excitement worthy of an eighteenth-century comic opera finale. As the work races off to its final bars, it looks in the rearview mirror to savour once again a simple melodic phrase from the overture that must surely qualify as among the most hummable-in-the-shower tunes in the orchestral repertoire.
Alma Brasileira (arr. Jorge Calandrelli)
The chôro, a type of urban street music arising in the nineteenth century out of a mix of European dance forms and homegrown Brazilian musical styles, inspired Villa- Lobos to compose a series of works in this popular vein during the 1920s. The composer writes into the score the lazy, languorous rubato performing style typical of street bands of the time, as well as the wide range of emotions that characterize the genre. The fifth in this series, subtitled Alma Brasileira (Brazilian soul), travels from a mood of brooding fatalism on to heights of lyrical ecstasy, and back again.
Oblivion (arr. Kyoko Yamamoto)
The Argentinian composer and performer Astor Piazzolla is credited with moving his country’s most famous musical genre from the dance hall into the concert hall, creating the nuevo tango by incorporating elements of jazz, classical and folk idioms, and by composing for smaller chamber ensembles instead of the large dance orchestras traditionally used.
The mood of wistful nostalgia that permeates his tangos is also heard in Oblivion, written in Rome in 1984 for the soundtrack to the film version of Luigi Pirandello’s 1922 stage play Enrico IV.
Dansa Negra (arr. Jorge Calandrelli)
With the surname of a celebrated family of violin-makers and a first name recognized even by chocolate-lovers, Mozart Camargo Guarnieri seemed destined to become a musician, and indeed pursued a successful career as a conductor and composer both in his native Brazil and in the United States.
This congenial and joyful piece arose out of the composer’s contact with Candomblé, the spiritualist religion of African origin practiced in Brazil in which worshippers use dance to promote contact with the divine presence. Its teasing rhythmic complexity gives an elegance and cosmopolitan polish to the deep folkloric traditions that inspired it.
Manuel de Falla
Siete Canciones Populares Españolas
De Falla’s most popular vocal work—already performed once before this VRS season by Avi Avital in an arrangement for mandolin—was composed in 1913 from authentic regional folk songs to which the composer added a piano part bristling with added-note chords, strumming rhythms and other effects richly suggestive of the sonorities of the Spanish guitar. The work represents a musical travelogue through the regions of Spain, each song offering a glimpse into the daily life and eternal concerns of the common people, beginning in Murcia from which the first two songs derive.
The first, El Paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth), gives a none- too-veiled warning to young girls to avoid the “stain” of an illicit love affair while the second, the Seguidilla murciana, is an intense argument of insistent taunts and bitter banter.
The mood changes to one of bewildered sadness in the Asturiana from Northern Spain, the hypnotic figures in the piano evoking the numbness of unfathomable grief. By contrast, nothing could be livelier than the Aragonese Jota that follows, a whirling piece in triple time danced to the rhythmic clicking of castanets.
The Andalusian Nana is a lullaby, said to be the one that De Falla’s mother sang to him when he was an infant. A rocking rhythm is created in the piano by a syncopated accompaniment over a soothing, sleepy pedal point in the bass.
The whimsy of love-sickness fills the Canción, a rollicking tune known all over Spain. The set ends in the deeply flamenco-inflected Andalusian gypsy music of Polo, with its rich build-up of guitar sonorities in the piano part supporting the dark fury of its melismatic solo line.
Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus
Few indeed are the great works of Western music written in a prisoner-of-war camp, but Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is one of them. Captured by the Germans in their sweep through France in 1940, Messiaen composed this 8-movement chamber work for clarinet, violin, cello and piano at the Stalag VIIIA camp in Görlitz, Silesia (present- day Poland) and premiered the work there with his fellow musician-inmates in January of 1941 before a ‘captive’ audience of understandably attentive listeners.
Inspiration for the work came from passages in the Book of Revelation in which an angel descends in glory from Heaven to announce the End of Time. Its fifth movement, Praise to the Eternity of Jesus, is a duo for cello and piano that evokes in broad majestic phrases the eternal quality of Jesus as “the Word,” “whose time never runs out.” With a tempo marking of Infiniment lent, extatique (infinitely slow, ecstatic) this movement seems to make time stand still, with its irregular groups of between three and six repeated piano chords behind a gentle but powerful overarching melody in the cello that provides a focus for this spiritual meditation.
Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano
It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter covering breaking news in 19th-century Belgian music, is not wide of the mark in observing that
There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music – soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels.
The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, the Sonata in A major for violin (1886), a present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe in honour of the celebrated violinist’s marriage, and actually performed at the wedding by Ysaÿe himself. This work also lies at the heart of the cello repertoire, in an adaptation made soon after by cellist Jules Desart and approved by the composer.
The Allegretto ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty. It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if prompting the instrumentalist with his pitches. The cello then obliges by using these tones to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the cello over simple chords in the piano, gradually builds in urgency until a second theme emerges in the solo piano in an outpouring of melodramatic intensity, ending in a dark turn to the minor. The cello will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key.
Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the cello. Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode. A more sunny mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento. The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.
The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the cello tries more than once to change the subject in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos. The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata. No major-mode ending here.
All tensions are eased, all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that features a simple tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically stable that it can be presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.
British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:
It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.