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Program Notes - Pictures at an Exhibition

Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
Gunther Schuller

b. New York, N.Y. / November 22, 1925

Gunther Schuller is one of America’s most gifted and most versatile musicians. He has made significant, influential contributions as a composer, conductor, author, educator and recording producer. He began his career as a horn player, serving as principal in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Meanwhile he began composing during the mid-1940s, writing both music influenced by the techniques of Arnold Schoenberg and the world of jazz. He took up conducting during the 1950s, championing the works of his contemporaries as well as neglected works by mainstream composers. Institutions where he has taught have included the Tanglewood Music Center, Yale University and the New England Conservatory. His catalogue of compositions includes more than 20 concertos (many featuring neglected instruments), ballets, film scores, songs and chamber works, plus arrangements of jazz standards and the ragtime music of Scott Joplin.

He composed Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, his most frequently performed orchestral work, in 1959. Klee (1879-1940) was a Swiss painter and graphic artist whose personal, often gently humorous works are filled with allusions to dreams, music and poetry.

Schuller wrote, “each of the seven pieces bears a slightly different relationship to the original Klee picture from which it stems. Some relate to the actual design, shape or color of the painting, while others take the general mood of the picture or its title as a point of departure. There is perhaps no other artist whose work bears such a close relationship to music, and whose work therefore, reciprocally, makes musical composition based on it a logical procedure. Klee, himself a musician until the age of 19, continued to be fascinated in his painting by the possibilities of ‘variation’ or ‘fugal’ techniques and rhythm and polyphony as applied to pictorial design.”

The moods and scoring of Schuller’s compact, imaginative “Studies” (average length, three minutes) range across a wide spectrum: dense and austere (Antique Harmonies); whimsical, with (Little Blue Devil) or without (Twittering Machine) jazz flavoring; exotic and atmospheric (Arab Village); dark and suspenseful (An Eerie Moment).

Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

b. Salzburg, Austria / January 27, 1756;
d. Vienna, Austria / December 5, 1791

Mozart relocated from Salzburg to Vienna in 1781. The Austrian capital valued his piano playing above all. Responding to this preference, he composed 12 superlative piano concertos, Nos. 14 to 25, between February 1784 and December 1786. They are deeper in feeling, broader in scope and richer in color than any written before. The first performance of this one took place on April 7, 1786.

Of all his 27 concertos for one or more pianos, only two are centered in minor keys, and only this one ends in the minor, as well. In Mozart’s day, minor keys didn’t always equate with melancholy, as they came to during the nineteenth century. But their relatively scarce occurrence did signify the presence of powerful and serious emotions.

The turbulent mood of the first movement persists from the opening bars straight through to the close. Several brief counter-themes provide the only passages of repose. The piano, unaccompanied, launches the second movement, a deeply touching creation despite its outward simplicity. The winds are used with special prominence throughout this serene rondo in slow tempo. Eight variations on a somber, march-like theme make up the Finale. Two of them pierce the clouds with rays of sunlight, but the coda maintains the concerto’s air of severity to the very end.

Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Mussorgsky

b. Karevo, Russia / March 21, 1839;
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / March 28, 1881
Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

This concert’s second gallery of musical pictures sprang from a personal friendship. Mussorgsky met Victor Hartmann, a brilliant young artist and architect, in 1862. They quickly became close friends, drawn together by the free wheeling creative spirit they shared, and by their common faith in the value of folk art. The 39-year-old Hartmann’s death from a heart attack in 1873 plunged Mussorgsky into a deep depression.

The following year, a memorial exhibition was held in St. Petersburg, displaying over 400 of Hartmann’s paintings, costumes, architectural designs and sketches for ornamental household objects. Mussorgsky’s visit to that display, combined with his desire to compose a piece in his friend’s memory, led to the creation of the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition.

Although it is without doubt his finest piano work, its colorful nature cries out for the rich palette of instrumental effects which only an orchestra can provide. The most popular setting is the one devised by Maurice Ravel, on commission from Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky. The first performance took place at the Paris Opera, under Koussevitzky’s direction, on October 19, 1922.

The suite opens with a majestic theme called Promenade, depicting visitors strolling between displays. It recurs, in different scoring, at several early points in the music. The first picture, The Gnome, describes in vivid fashion a grotesque nutcracker which Hartmann designed as a children’s Christmas present. Hartmann’s watercolor painting The Old Castle portrays a troubadour serenading his loved one by moonlight; the melancholy tone implies that his attempts at wooing prove unsuccessful. Ravel gives the main theme, most effectively, to the doleful voice of the alto saxophone.

Tuileries is a miniature scherzo, depicting children and their nurses strolling gracefully through a Parisian garden. The somber voice of the solo tuba takes centre stage in Bydlo, which follows the lumbering approach and retreat of a Polish oxcart with large, heavy wheels. This is followed by another light scherzo, The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells. Mussorgsky’s inspiration was Hartmann’s costume sketch for a ballet, Trilby, in which dancers were dressed in large eggshells topped by the heads of canaries.

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle describes two Polish Jews whom Hartmann had sketched in pencil while visiting that country. The first fellow is rich and pompous (low strings), the second poor and excitable (muted trumpet). After a bustling portrait of the marketplace in the French city of Limoges (complete with a raucous dispute between rival female vegetable vendors), the scene switches abruptly to Catacombs (A Roman Sepulchre), a stark, menacing portrait of an ancient underground tomb. In the second half of this section, With the Dead in a Dead Language, the music drops to a ghostly whisper for an eerie vision of skulls glowing in the dark.

Next comes a dynamic, phantasmagoric picture of Baba Yaga, the evil witch of Russian folklore, who flies about in a magic hut built on chicken’s legs. Hartmann used this image as the design for an elaborate clock. The suite concludes with a stirring evocation of Hartmann’s plan for an immense stone gate, in the massive old Russian style with a crown in the shape of a Slavonic helmet. It was intended for the Ukrainian city of Kiev but was never built. By way of compensation, Mussorgsky and Ravel together constructed upon its spirit a grander work than any tradesmen could ever hope to build. For sheer orchestral spectacle, The Great Gate at Kiev has few rivals.

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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