October 7-8, 2022
Ciel d'hiver (Winter Sky) (2013)
Violin Concerto No. 2 in A major, op. 5 (1775)
Hannah Ji, violin
Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874, orch. 1922)
The Old Castle
Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells
Samuel Goldenberg and SChmuyle
The Market at Limoges
Con Mortuis in lingua mortua
The Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yaga)
The Great Gate at Kiev
By Benjamin Pesetsky
The pieces on today’s concert are very different—an 18th-century violin concerto, a 19th-century piano piece in a 20th-century orchestration, and a recent 21st-century work. One point of commonality is that all these pieces come to us via France, but with origins elsewhere. Joseph Bologne was born in Guadalupe to an enslaved mother of African ancestry, and became a champion fencer, violinist, and composer in Paris. Modest Mussorgsky never traveled far from Saint Petersburg, but his piano piece Pictures at an Exhibition became most famous in an arrangement by Frenchman Maurice Ravel. And Kaija Saariaho is a Finnish composer who has long lived in Paris and been closely associated with French contemporary music. It’s a long way from Bologne to Saariaho, but you might perceive the slightest thread of continuity in colors and textures across it all.
Ciel d'hiver (Winter Sky)
Born 1952, Helsinki, Finland
Kaija Saariaho belongs to a group of Finnish composers, also including Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg, who founded the Korvat auki (Ears Open) society for contemporary music in the late 1970s. Beginning in 1982, she studied at IRCAM, the hotbed of electronic music research in Paris. Her work continues to be rooted in the avant-garde, with an ethereal beauty and sense of mystery—it feels not quite human, yet still makes a connection with us.
Ciel d’hiver (Winter Sky) began as the second movement of a larger orchestral piece, Orion, from 2002. She re-orchestrated it in 2013 on commission from Musique Nouvelle en Liberté, and this version was premiered in 2014 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris by the Orchestre Lamoureux.
The opening is cold and glassy, laying down a bed of strings, harp, and percussion, on which a piccolo, a violin, and a clarinet rest. The timbre slowly shifts as other instruments take over, culminating in blocks of wind and brass. The middle section contrasts high and low masses of sound, moving between the stratosphere and the abyss. Eventually a piano pattern emerges, accompanying fragments of a solo cello’s melody. The piece captures the sweep and depth of the winter sky, its stinging cold and clarity, the slow drift and play of the constellations as they rise and set, and the immensity of it all.
First performance: April 7, 2014, by the Orchestre Lamoreux in Paris, France, Fayçal Karoui conducting
First SLSO performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 clarinets, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons (doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (crotales, glass chimes, shell chimes, triangle, tam-tam, suspended cymbals, vibraphone, triangle, small bell, and bass drum, celeste, harp, piano, and strings
Approximate duration: 10 minutes
Violin Concerto No. 2 in A major, op. 5
Born 1745, Baillif, Gaudeloupe
Died 1799, Paris, France
His equal was never seen in fencing,
Charming musician, facile composer…
And in each he found his own style.
These words described Joseph Bologne in 1788, near the height of his dual athletic and musical careers, on the eve of the French Revolution. Decades after his death, he appeared as a nearly mythological figure in a biographical novel called Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, heralded as “this man of combat, of good fortunes and of sighs, this unique man.”
Bologne was born on the Caribbean island of Base-Terre in Guadeloupe to Nanon, an enslaved woman. His father was George Bologne, a French plantation owner, who acknowledged Joseph as his son and gave him the family name. Two years later, George was accused of murder and fled to France with Joseph and Nanon (he was later cleared of the crime). By his early teens, Joseph was a skilled fencer, studying with the famed master La Boëssieère and winning important matches. At 19, he was knighted and given the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Bologne was also studying music, likely with the composer François-Joseph Gossec. In his 20s, he became concertmaster of the Concert des Amateurs, one of the first orchestras in Europe to offer a public concert series outside of a nobleman’s court. In short order, he made his solo debut with his own violin concertos, and became the orchestra’s musical director. Over the following decade, he published 12 concertos, 10 symphonies, and two sets of string quartets. He also wrote operas and commissioned and premiered Joseph Haydn’s “Paris” Symphonies.
In his 40s, Bologne’s world of French nobility ended in pools of blood and the monarchy was overthrown. Supporting the Republic, he led an all-Black cavalry unit and was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror before regaining his command. He returned to the violin, but after the Revolution, French music declined in the shadow of German Romanticism. Following Bologne’s death from an infection in 1799, his music was forgotten and then ignored for the better part of two centuries.
The 1970s brought renewed interest when Columbia Masterworks’ Black Composers Series dedicated its first LP to Bologne, and scholarly articles began to appear. More recently, as part of the growing acknowledgement of the contributions of Black classical musicians throughout history, his music has been regularly played in concert, and a new biopic titled Chevalier is screening at film festivals this fall.
While Haydn and Mozart may seem to be the nearest points of comparison when hearing Bologne, the musicologist Dominique-René de Lerma has pointed out important differences in their styles. “Saint-Georges’ music is totally French,” he wrote in The Black Perspective in Music. “It does everyone a great injustice to refer to Saint-Georges as a ‘black Mozart’ or a ‘black Haydn.’ What Saint-Georges had in common with these two, he had in common with other composers of his time from all over Europe. It is the thing he possessed that was different that matters! Saint-Georges’ music does not sound like that of Mozart or Haydn, who were Austrian composers and, therefore, from a different culture.”
This Violin Concerto was likely premiered by Bologne with the Concert des Amateurs and was published around 1775 by Antoine Bailleux. The first movement begins with a mini-overture, the orchestra completing a main theme, a contrasting minor-key theme, and even a little coda before the soloist enters, elaborating on all these ideas. The second movement is heavy with longing, the orchestra pulsing in beats of twelve as the violin unspools a long melody into its highest register. The lively finale is a Rondeau, a form that returns to a fixed theme in between contrasting episodes. Listen for the sudden entry of peasant pipes and fiddles, crashing the elegant ambiance—perhaps a musical anticipation of events to come.
First performance: c. 1775 in Paris, presumably with the Concert des Amateurs and Joseph Bologne as conductor and soloist
First SLSO performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: Solo violin, strings, and harpsichord
Approximate duration: 21 minutes
Pictures at an Exhibition
Born 1839, Karevo, Russia
Died 1881, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Born 1875, Ciboure, France
Died 1937, Paris, France
Modest Mussorgsky lived at a time when Russians mostly valued Western European music, and Russian composers were all self-taught, held day jobs as civil servants or military officers, and faced limited prospects. The spectrum of taste ran from Italian opera to German chamber music, but rarely reached farther east. As part of the “Mighty Handful” of mid 19th-century Russian composers, Mussorgsky wanted to change this situation. He sought realism in his music, eschewed academic training, and embraced his musical intuition—or “utter technical incompetence,” as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov called it.
The fact that Mussorgsky was an alcoholic didn’t help his reputation, and he left many unfinished pieces in disorganized manuscripts. A famous portrait shows him in the hospital the week he died, disheveled and bloated, gazing into the distance, somehow still with a hint of youth in his face, though terminally ill at 42.
The piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition was one of only a few pieces he completed without serious editing and rewriting by Rimsky-Korsakov, though it went unperformed during his life. The pictures were by his friend Viktor Hartmann, an imaginative architect, draftsman, and scenic designer in the Mighty Handful’s wider circle. The artist’s untimely death in 1873 prompted an exhibit of his work, which explains the aura of sadness that hangs over some of the movements. It was orchestrated by at least three composers before Maurice Ravel made his iconic version in 1922 at the request of the conductor Serge Koussevitzky. It is now often taken as a case study in orchestrational mastery.
Mussorgsky and Ravel’s combined work is so vivid as to make description almost redundant. But a few comments:
Gnomus was a wooden toy designed by Hartmann in the shape of a gnome. The Old Castle features one of the most famous orchestral saxophone solos, perfectly fitting this mournful scene. The Tuileries are filled with the sounds of children playing and scampering around in the garden. Bydlo is a lumbering oxcart. The Ballet of the Chicks was inspired by a costume design for such a scene. Samuel Goldenberg and Smuel depicts two Polish Jews, one rich, one poor; Hartmann’s portraits were realistic, but Mussorgsky places them in a musical argument that leans toward antisemitic caricature. The Marketplace at Limoges portrays the excited spread of gossip and good news. In a morbid shift, we enter the Catacombs and spend some time cum mortuis in lingua mortua (with the dead in a dead language). The Hut on Chicken’s Legs belongs to Baba Yaga, the witch of Slavic folklore. Finally, the Great Gate of Kiev is based on Hartmann’s architectural plan for a never-built monument to the tsar in Kyiv. Since last February, this movement has sometimes been heard in protest of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a reinterpretation at odds with the original symbolism of the proposed gate and Mussorgsky’s own nationalism, though perhaps not precluded by it.
First performance: October 19, 1922, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky conducting
First SLSO performance: October 31, 1930, Fernandez Arbos conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: November 23, 2019, Marcelo Lehninger conducting
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (third doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (side drum, bass drum, rattle, whip, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, bells, and xylophone), celesta, 2 harps, and strings
Approximate duration: 35 minutes
Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.