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Program Notes - Pinchas Plays Bach

Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060
Johann Sebastian Bach

b. Eisenach, Germany / March 21, 1685;
d. Leipzig, Germany / July 28, 1750

Among Bach’s responsibilities during his period in Leipzig, the final 27 years of his life, was the directorship of the Collegium musicum. This performing group gave public concerts. For those events, Bach not only composed original works but adapted many previously existing ones. He created the original, violin-and-oboe edition of this concerto for the Collegium musicum. That version has been lost, but his transcription for two harpsichords survived. From it, musicologists have reconstructed what they believe to be its original scoring. The concerto’s opening and closing movements bustle with animation, while the slow middle section offers an interlude of poised, placid nobility.

Pulcinella: Suite
Igor Stravinsky

b. Oranienbaum, Russia / June 17, 1882;
d. New York, NY / April 6, 1971

Stravinsky shot to fame through his brilliant collaborations with impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his company, Les Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). In 1919 Diaghilev hatched a new plan. Stravinsky recalled that as the two of them strolled down a boulevard in Paris, Diaghilev said, “’I have an idea that I think will amuse you...I want you to look at some delightful eighteenth-century music with the idea of orchestrating it for a ballet.’ When he said that the composer was Pergolesi, I thought he must be deranged. I did promise to look, however, and to give him my opinion. I looked, and I fell in love.”

Diaghilev, Stravinsky and choreographer Leonide Massine collaborated on the ballet’s scenario. They based it on a manuscript dating from 1700, setting out the adventures of Pulcinella, a rascally character from the Neapolitan theater tradition known as commedia dell’arte. The story they settled on is a typically farcical tale of love, jealousy and deception.

Stravinsky chose a pit-sized orchestra of 33 for his enchanting score. He kept Pergolesi’s melodies virtually intact, but placed his own, tart stamp upon them. The premiere took place in Paris on May 15, 1920. The press gave it mixed reviews, but the public adored it. Two years later, Stravinsky prepared this purely instrumental concert suite.

“Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible,” Stravinsky wrote. “It was a backward look, of course – the first of many love affairs in that direction – but it was a look in the mirror, too.”

Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (Enigma)
Sir Edward Elgar

b. Broadheath, England / June 2, 1857;
d. Worcester, England / February 23, 1934

The origin of the “Enigma” Variations, the English orchestral work par excellence and Elgar’s ticket to fame, can be precisely dated: October 21, 1898. As he recalled, “One evening after a long and tiresome day’s teaching, aided by a cigar, I musingly played on the piano the theme as it now stands. The voice of Lady Elgar asked with a sound of approval ‘What was that?’ I answered, ‘Nothing – but something might be made of it; Powell would have done this (Variation 2) or Nevinson would have looked at it like this (Variation 12).’ Variation 4 was then played and the question asked, ‘Who is that like?’ The answer was, ‘I cannot quite say, but it is exactly the way W.M.B. goes out of the room. You are doing something which I think has never been done before.’ Thus the work grew into the shape it has now.” Hans Richter conducted the highly acclaimed premiere, in London on June 19, 1899.

Elgar never fully explained a mystery he had woven into the score. In later years he stated that throughout the variations “another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but it is not played.” It was long assumed that he was referring to a concealed melody, which could be played in counterpoint to the variations. Identifying it became virtually a national sport for British music lovers: Auld Lang Syne, God Save the Queen and Rule, Britannia have been the most frequent of the many candidates put forward. Elgar himself gave some credence to this view, stating that the mystery melody “was so well known that it was strange no one had discovered it.”

On another occasion, he stated: “This work, commenced in a spirit of humor and continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer’s friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme and each one attempts a solution of the ‘enigma,’ for so the theme is called.” Fortunately the music requires no knowledge of its sources and subtext to succeed. Its international esteem springs from its purely musical qualities: a rich diversity of mood and sound, affecting emotional sincerity and masterly display of orchestral resource.

After the somewhat melancholy theme has been presented, the slightly more animated and affectionate Variation 1 characterizes Elgar’s wife, Caroline. The nervous bustle of Variation 2 mimics Hew David Steuart Powell’s characteristic warmup at the piano, while the third variation’s light-hearted mood recalls the mimicking talents of Elgar’s friend Richard Baxter Townshend. The animated, sharply accented Variation 4 presents a portrait of the brusque country squire William Meath Baker. It is followed in by Variation 5 by a gently dreaming picture of music lover Richard Penrose Arnold.

Amateur violist Isabel Fitton is the next person to be portrayed, in a lyrical variation featuring a solo for her chosen instrument. A rambunctious variation featuring timpani and trombones then shows us Arthur Troyte Griffith, an outgoing architect, and his woeful efforts at piano playing. Variation 8 takes a glowingly colored look at a young woman named Winifred Norbury.

The score’s most celebrated section, the ninth variation, offers Elgar’s heartfelt tribute to one of his most steadfast friends, German-born music editor and journalist August Johannes Jaeger. In German, this family name means hunter. Elgar decided to nickname Jaeger’s variation Nimrod, after the vain Old Testament hunter king who built the tower of Babel.

The fleet, delicately orchestrated Variation 10 brings us Dora Penny, portraying her stammer in a delicately affectionate manner. Elgar drew Dorabella, his nickname for her, from a character in Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte. The boisterous Variation 11 presents not so much its dedicatee, organist George Robertson Sinclair, as his bulldog Dan, leaping into the river to fetch a stick.

A gorgeous cello solo is featured in Variation 12, depicting Basil G. Nevinson, a friend who played that instrument. Variation 13 paints a rather somber portrait of Lady Mary Lygon. She was about to embark on a sea voyage at the time Elgar composed this portrait, hence the imitations of ship engines and the clarinets’ quotation from Mendelssohn’s overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.

The finale is a self portrait, written, as Elgar stated, “at a time when friends were dubious and generally discouraging as to the composer’s musical future.” His reply to their doubtfulness is bold and vigorous, and contains quotations from previous portions of the score. It forecasts – accurately, as it turned out – Elgar’s successful future.

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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