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Program Notes: Mozart and Strauss

Friday, April 5, 2019 at 10:30am

Saturday, April 6, 2019 at 8:00pm

Sunday, April 7, 2019 at 3:00pm

Gemma New, conductor

Mark Sparks, flute

Allegra Lilly, harp

THOMAS ADÈS Three Studies from Couperin

MOZART Concerto in C major for Flute & Harp, K. 299

R. STRAUSS Suite from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (Der Bürger als Edelmann)



Born: March 1, 1971, London, England

Three Studies from Couperin

This concert begins where it will end: in the golden age of French baroque music. After a fashion.

The music is both 13 and 300 years old: three movements taken from François Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin and revealed for the modern ear; harpsichord music transformed for the visual and aural theatre of a double chamber orchestra.

Adès makes no changes to the structure or the notes of Couperin’s originals; he works his magic entirely with color and texture. Might you call that a transcription – in the tradition of Stokowski’s orchestral transcription of Bach’s organ Toccata and Fugue in Fantasia?

Tellingly, Adès chooses a different word: “study.” Not in the sense of a musical etude – a technical exercise – but rather in the sense of an artist’s study. He explores the subject matter by changing the medium, revealing latent possibilities not apparent in the sound world of the original.

Adès’ choice of Couperin comes as no surprise. The middle section of Asyla – his first symphonic work, from 1997 – is based on Couperin. And just as the cellist Pablo Casals began each day playing Bach, Adès turns daily to Couperin, the only composer whose music sits permanently on his piano, offering, he says, “new inspiration on every page.”

He’s in excellent company. Brahms was an early advocate of Couperin; Richard Strauss arranged Couperin for chamber orchestra in his Divertimento (1940–41); Ravel found inspiration for his Tombeau de Couperin; and Debussy said this of the harpsichord pieces: “they are marvelous models of grace and innocence long past. Nothing could ever make us forget the subtly voluptuous perfume, so delicately perverse, that so innocently hovers over the Barricades mystérieuses.”

As it happens, Adès made a chamber arrangement of Barricades mystérieuses in 1994, highlighting the way its interweaving lines generate melody from harmony and vice versa. Like Debussy, Adès knows we can learn great things from the past.

The first study, Les Amusemens (“Amusements”), is organized as a pair of rondos, one in G major, the other in G minor, each with a recurring refrain interspersed with couplets. Where Couperin’s original piece sparkles like a witty conversation, Adès adopts voluptuous, muted tones: alto and bass flutes, for example, above muted strings.

He saves the sparkle for the central study, Les Tours de Passe-passe (“Sleight of hand”). The harpsichord original is a literal exercise in legerdemain: the hands twisting around each other, sharing the melody high on the keyboard. Adès asks instruments with traditionally low tessituras such as the bassoon and the violas to play high in their range, and colors the sound with plucked strings and flute-like harmonics in the violins. The frenetic sharing of melody notes between parts threatens disaster – hocus pocus!

In the final, eloquent study, L’Âme-en-Peine (“The Soul in Torment”), sighing strings dominate the anguished sound, woodwinds provide a weighty halo. And, like an impossibly slow heartbeat, the percussionist strikes a kettle drum dead center with two sticks for an effect that suggests the “muffled drums” of a baroque funeral march.

Yvonne Frindle © 2019

First Performance: April 21, 2006, Basel, Switzerland, Thomas Adès conducting the Basel Chamber Orchestra

First SLSO Performance: April 5, 2019, Gemma New conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes (1st doubling alto flute, 2nd doubling bass flute), clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, timpani, percussion (bass drum, marimba, 2 metal bars, 5 rototoms), and double string orchestra

Performance Time: approximately 14 minutes



Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria

Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in C major for Flute & Harp, K. 299

While Adès and Strauss give a musical nod to Paris, Mozart makes it his rendezvous. In 1778 he travelled there in search of fame and fortune. His friend Wendling, the flute virtuoso, had assured him “it is still the only place where one can make money and a great reputation,” especially, he added, for Mozart who could turn his hand to anything!

This particular gift allowed Mozart to respond to the latest musical fashions, and in 1770s Paris the fad du jour was the symphonie concertante – a concerto with two or more soloists. Mozart wrote six, including the remarkable Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K. 364, and this concerto for flute and harp.

Knowing the importance of influential sponsors, Wendling had introduced Mozart to the Duc de Guînes, an accomplished amateur flutist with a harp-playing daughter, Marie-Adrienne. The introduction bore fruit: Mozart was engaged to teach Marie-Adrienne composition and commissioned to write the father-and-daughter concerto. But it turned out to be a story worthy of Molière.

The Duc was a career diplomat and his musical activities served him well, leading to a friendship with Frederick the Great, another accomplished amateur flutist, and bringing him into the intimate circle of Marie-Antoinette. There’s a report of him entertaining the queen in her gardens with a “charming trio”: the professional oboist and horn player dressed as fauns and he as a shepherd.

Mozart himself acknowledged that de Guînes played the flute “incomparably,” the daughter the harp “magnifique.” (As a composition student she was a disappointment.) Despite this praise, however, Mozart wrote their concerto in the “easy” key of C major and ensured that neither of the parts was too taxing. An accommodation in a different direction saw Mozart include extra notes at the bottom of the flute’s range, to show off a six-keyed instrument the Duc had found in England.

Perhaps if Mozart had known that de Guînes had been recalled from London after a lawsuit accusing him of bribery and speculation, he might have been less surprised when de Guînes refused to pay him for either the concerto or the lessons. Fame and fortune proved elusive, and he left Paris disappointed.

But the music does not disappoint. Whatever the circumstances of its creation, we can enjoy a concerto that, in the true tradition of the sinfonia concertante is relaxed, gracious and overflowing with melodic variety and perfectly accommodating to popular taste. Mozart knew, for example, that Paris audiences simply loved symphonic works that began with a grand unison, all the instruments playing the same notes together!

Mozart’s writing for the solo parts is deft and congenial – although he composes for the harp like the pianist that he was – and his treatment of the orchestra is full of imagination. The violas (Mozart’s preferred chamber music instrument) have plenty to do and in the idyllic Andantino movement the viola section is divided into two independent parts for an accompaniment of special richness. The recurring theme of the rondo-finale is a sprightly gavotte – each phrase beginning halfway through the measure as is proper in this elegant French dance.

Yvonne Frindle © 2019

First Performance: presumably a private performance given by the Duc de Guînes

First SLSO Performance: March 12, 1943, Vladimir Golschmann conducting with Graziella Pampari and Laurent Torno as soloists

Most Recent SLSO Performance: October 26, 2003, Nicholas McGegan conducting with Nancy Allen and Mark Sparks as soloists

Scoring: solo flute, solo harp, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 30 minutes



Born: June 11, 1864, Munich, Germany

Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

Suite from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (Der Bürger als Edelmann), op. 60

The life of Strauss’ “would-be gentleman” began in 1670 with Molière’s all-singing, all-dancing comédie-ballet Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, a satire on the aspirations of the wealthy middle class in the time of Louis XIV. To Strauss’ contemporaries, Molière’s play (with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully) was a museum-piece. But in 1911 Hugo von Hofmannsthal – Strauss’ librettist – proposed a “little Molière piece” based on the play. By the following year, the “little” idea had grown into an ambitious integration of theatre and opera.

The four-hour production began with an adaptation of Molière’s play, renamed Der Bürger als Edelmann (“The Middleclass Nobleman”), followed by a miniature opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, which threatened to overwhelm the drama just as Lully’s grand Ballet des Nations had done in the same spot nearly 250 years before. The logistical demands – combined with theatre- and opera-goers’ indifference to each other’s art forms – ensured there wouldn’t be a repeat performance.

The dramatic experiment was split up: Ariadne auf Naxos took its place in the opera repertory; a revised Bürger als Edelmann flopped in 1918 and was revived just once in Strauss’ lifetime (at his request for his 85th birthday). Only through this orchestral suite has his deft musical portrait of pride and folly survived.

Strauss knew of Lully’s music and there are glimpses of the French composer in Strauss’ score. The small orchestra – 36 musicians, as in the theatre – suggests the transparency of the baroque sound-world, but this is 17th-century France filtered through a 20th-century imagination.


Listening Guide

[Excerpts from Molière’s play are in italics. Strauss’ movement titles are in bold.]

M. JOURDAIN. There is nothing to compare, in my opinion, with genteel society. There’s no true honor and dignity except among the nobility. I would give my right hand to have been born a count or a marquis.

The Overture to Act I establishes the mood with strings, doubled by the piano in the manner of a baroque basso continuo. A coarse brass theme interrupts the repartee; a sweetly lilting arietta is presented by the oboe. In just a few minutes Strauss introduces the blustering would-be gentleman, the wealthy merchant Monsieur Jourdain, and his bemused hired tutors. Music, dancing, and fencing masters provide a crash course in gentlemanly accomplishments; the philosopher reveals, to his pupil’s amazement, that M. Jourdain has been speaking in prose for 40 years!

MASTER. What is war but discord among nations? If all men studied music wouldn’t it be a means of bringing them to harmony and universal peace?

DANCING MASTER. And what do we say when a man has committed some mistake in his private life or in public affairs? Don’t we say that he made a false step? And doesn’t that come from not knowing how to dance?

Jourdain’s favorite dance is the elegant Minuet, although his execution of it is anything but, despite the efforts of The Dancing Master. In music rescued from Strauss’ abandoned ballet Kythere, the heavy accents on weak beats suggest Jourdain’s clumsiness.

The piano emerges from the background for The Fencing Master – almost a miniature piano concerto, “con bravura!” Thrusting scales and arpeggios are parried by brass fanfares in a “logical demonstration” of the swordsman’s art.

TAILOR. The coat I have here is as fine as any at the court, most beautifully designed. It’s a work of art to have made a suit which looks dignified without using black. I have brought my men with me to dress you to music. Suits like these must be put on with ceremony.

M. Jourdain is next attended by the tailor and his “hopping” apprentices (The Entrance and Dance of the Tailors). The rhythm required for dressing “persons of consequence” is supplied by a sprightly gavotte (also rescued from Kythere), after which the tailor dances a stately polonaise. This spectacular violin solo has been described as Strauss’ “Superman” dressed in wig and stockings; Jourdain makes a gauche imitation to disturbing brass chords.

The Minuet of Lully was added for the 1918 revision. In Lully’s Bourgeois gentilhomme the melody had been unaccompanied, the Dancing Master frantically singing instructions: “la la la la la, keep time if you please.” Strauss gives it to the oboe, dressed in modern harmonic colors. The Courante was also added in 1918 for a scene in which guests of dubious character descend on M. Jourdain (they are strangers to him and to Molière). Their elaborate dance whirls with waltz-like grace.

The Entrance of Cléonte evokes the sound-world of Molière and Lully. Intending to win the hand of Jourdain’s daughter, Cléonte enters disguised as a Turkish nobleman bearing promises of instant elevation to the aristocracy. This grandly exotic scene begins with a subdued procession based on one of Lully’s sarabandes. The central section is elegantly raucous, with added piccolo and triangle; the solemn opening theme then returns, colored by exotic percussion instruments.

The Prelude to Act II introduces Dorante and Dorimène, who are the genuine, but not entirely noble, aristocrats in Molière’s play. In music featuring the clarinet and solo violin, dotted rhythms (mixing long and quick notes) revive a baroque convention for representing a majestic mood.

M. JOURDAIN. Madam, I am greatly honored to be favored with your condescension in deigning to accord me the favor – of your presence and if I should also have the merit to merit a merit such as yours and had heaven accorded me the advantage of being worthy –

DORANTE. That’s enough, M. Jourdain. [Aside to DORIMÈNE] He’s a worthy merchant, but, as you see, rather foolish in his ways.

For the feast that M. Jourdain unwittingly hosts to the benefit of Dorante and Dorimène, Hofmannsthal completely revised Molière’s menu to accommodate up-to-date musical jokes. The Dinner begins when six cooks enter carrying an elaborate meal to a coronation march by Meyerbeer. The Rhine salmon is served to the wave motif from Wagner’s Rheingold; the saddle of mutton to the bleating sheep from Strauss’ own Don Quixote. A dish of songbirds is accompanied by birdsong from Der Rosenkavalier and a sly allusion to Verdi’s “La donna è mobile.” Finally, the omelet surprises everyone when a kitchen boy jumps from the enormous platter for what Hofmannsthal intended to be a wild erotic dance (à la Salome?). Strauss, however, dishes up a buoyant Viennese waltz – intoxicating, but completely wholesome.

Yvonne Frindle © 2019

First Performance: April 9, 1918, Berlin, Germany, Strauss conducting

First SLSO Performance: February 27, 1954, Vladimir Golschmann conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: May 25, 1991, Raymond Leppard conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tambourine, triangle), harp, piano, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 36 minutes


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