January 14, 2023
Cristian Măcelaru, conductor
Alice Sara Ott, piano
Symphonic Tableau after La foi, op. 130 (1908)
Piano Concerto in G major (1929)
Alice Sara Ott, piano
Symphony No. 1 in F minor, op. 10 (1925) Allegretto; Allegro non troppo
Lento; Allegro molto
by Yvonne Frindle
Cinema and Circuses
In the first decade of the 20th century it became clear that motion pictures weren’t some passing fad—cinema was here to stay. In 1908, the first of this concert’s composers was enlisted to write what is thought to be the first original film score, for a 15-minute historical drama, The Assassination of the Duke de Guise. Camille Saint-Saëns was in his 70s, drawing on a wealth of experience composing for the theatre—music for plays like La Foi.
By the 1920s, the young Dmitri Shostakovich—a poor Russian music student in a time of great privation—was eking out a living as an improvising pianist for silent movies. Apparently he hated the work, but he was already demonstrating the instinct for drama and satirical humor that would soon emerge in his First Symphony.
Before cinema, the mass entertainment of choice was the circus, and Maurice Ravel’s daredevil, whip-cracking Piano Concerto in G evokes something of that world. Its musical heritage is the piano concertos of Saint-Saëns (and W. A. Mozart), but it also introduces an element that would have been considered both exotic and fashionable in 1930s Paris: American jazz.
Two decades earlier, Parisians were looking in the opposite direction for the exotic and fashionable. Napoleon’s attempted invasion of Egypt at the turn of the 19th century had led to an enduring interest in all things Egyptian. Saint-Saëns shared that fascination, but, unlike many of his contemporaries, he’d actually visited Egypt himself and listened to its music. It’s not merely fashion then, but a spirit of authenticity, as he attempts to take his listeners there too…
Symphonic Tableau after La foi
Born 1835, Paris, France
Died 1921, Algiers, Algeria
Saint-Saëns made a habit of traveling to Algeria and Egypt to avoid the miserable Paris winters, which wreaked havoc with his weak chest. While there, he noted the songs and colors in the music he heard, introducing these into his own compositions. But what might have simply been fashionable exoticism for his compatriots, was, for Saint-Saëns, a source of authenticity, especially in his maturity, as his knowledge of non-Western music and his respect for ancient civilizations deepened, and he became increasingly disillusioned with Western ideas of “progress.”
This is best heard in his Fifth Piano Concerto (1896), the “Egyptian,” which in recent decades has approached the popularity of his warhorse Second Piano Concerto. In the Fifth Concerto Saint-Saëns distilled first-hand impressions, employing the resources of the modern symphony orchestra to depict north African string instruments and evoke Eastern vocal style. At this point in his career, Saint-Saëns was seeking to present his exotic themes as what Lynne Johnson calls “valid forms of musical expression in their own right,” integrating Eastern and Western themes. Saint-Saëns’ incidental music for Eugène Brieux’s play La foi (Faith, or, as it was billed in London, False Gods) takes the same masterful approach.
Brieux set his five-act play in the Egypt of the Middle Kingdom Pharaohs. Saint-Saëns was in Cairo when the invitation arrived, and he embarked with enthusiasm on a project to create an ancient musical idiom for the play. He even anticipated making a second, grand operatic version, a kind of alternative Aida. The opera never eventuated, but he did make a concert suite of three symphonic tableaus, scored for a full orchestra rather than a small backstage band, expanding on ideas that had been constrained by theatrical requirements.
Conductor Cristian Măcelaru has chosen the third tableau from this suite: a 12-minute orchestral tone poem featuring music written to underscore an elaborate scene in Act IV, when the High Priest announces that the Holy of Holies in the Temple will be opened. It accompanies the crowd’s ardent prayers to the goddess Isis and their wild rejoicing when her effigy finally “nods.”
To modern ears, with instant access to recorded music from around the globe, Saint-Saëns’ music for La foi sounds less like anything Egyptian (ancient or otherwise) and more like turn-of-the-century French. He himself expected his use of “Egyptian scales” with their added, foreign notes would lead to talk that he simply “wanted to be up to date.” And, he lamented in a letter to his colleague Gabriel Fauré, “unfortunately, after [Richard Strauss’] Salome it’ll come over as diatonic.” Ironically, the pursuit of an ancient musical style had led this Romantic traditionalist to musical gestures of modality and dissonance associated with the latest in modern trends.
First performance: April 10, 1909, in Monte Carlo, Monaco
First SLSO performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, strings
Approximate duration: 15 minutes
Piano Concerto in G
Born 1835, Ciboure, France
Died 1937, Paris, France
Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G begins with the crack of a whip, startling the piccolo into action. The scene seems set for a race—or is it a circus? Before a minute has passed, each of the concerto’s chief characteristics has made a fleeting appearance: joyous brilliance, melancholy lyricism, lively virtuosity, classical economy, evanescent orchestral color, a hint of American jazz, and a trace of Ravel’s native Basque country.
Ravel said his goal was to write a “genuine concerto”—a brilliant work, highlighting the virtuosity of the soloist. He was, in part, reacting to the kind of symphonic concerto “conceived not for but against the piano” (here he mentions Johannes Brahms). Instead he took as his musical guides Mozart and Saint-Saëns, whose piano concertos he especially admired.
Mozart is present not only in the collaborative relationship between the soloist and orchestra, but in the classically proportioned orchestra and the way Ravel places the woodwinds in high relief. Saint-Saëns emerges in neoclassical forms and in the way the musical materials seem calculated to delight.
Also in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, Ravel had intended the concerto for his own use. But unlike those composers, Ravel was no keyboard virtuoso, and it was Marguerite Long who gave the premiere. Ravel may not have been much of a pianist, but he was a virtuoso of the orchestra, and in this concerto the orchestra is featured as much as the piano. After the piccolo and trumpet introduce the frolicsome opening theme, the English horn escorts us into Spain, accompanied by languid strumming from the piano. The clarinet introduces the first of a series of jazz-inspired gestures that suggest George Gershwin. Listen for the distinctive qualities of high bassoon and muted trumpet; listen for the harp, which is given the first cadenza, ahead of the soloist!
The slow second movement begins with piano alone, playing one of Ravel’s most expressive and finely crafted melodies. Ravel claimed it nearly killed him, but there’s no evidence of the painstaking effort that went into sculpting this perfectly poised music. Ravel creates a feeling of impulse by superimposing a stately sarabande rhythm in the right hand above a slow waltz in the left. Once the orchestra enters, the mournful tones of the English horn lead a wistful and tender dialogue.
The third movement—a whirlwind presto barely four minutes long—is launched with a drum roll and a fanfare. We’re back in the world of races and circuses—the world of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Erik Satie’s Parade. The music plays out a game, said Long, in which two themes are pursued between soloist and orchestra. The Presto is more overtly jazzy than the first movement, with piercing clarinet flourishes and sliding trombones. Through all this the piano darts and weaves until the dazzling movement is brought to a sudden and abrupt end, exactly as it began.
First performance: January 14, 1932, by the Lamoureux Orchestra in Paris, the composer conducting, with Marguerite Long as soloist
First SLSO performance: February 17, 1945, Leonard Bernstein conducting from the piano
Most recent SLSO performance: September 22, 2019, Stéphane Denève conducting, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist
Instrumentation: solo piano, piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion, harp, strings
Approximate duration: 23 minutes
Symphony No. 1
Born 1906, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Died 1975, Moscow, Russia
Throughout his adult life, Dmitri Shostakovich celebrated May 12 as his “second birthday”—the anniversary of the premiere of his First Symphony in 1926. The symphony was his graduation piece, in itself an achievement, but the premiere was especially significant. It took place in Leningrad’s most prestigious concert hall as the season finale; the city’s leading orchestra was conducted by Nicolai Malko. Malko’s diary captured the mood: “I feel as though we have started a new page in the history of symphonic music.”
The critics were equally enthusiastic, and the Izvestia newspaper, which praised the symphony’s form, orchestral color, and authenticity, claimed the 19-year-old talent as a first-generation Soviet composer, who’d “reached artistic maturity during the post-October [Revolution] period.” Most important, the audience was enraptured, offering a thunderous ovation.
The symphony triggered Shostakovich’s meteoric rise to enduring worldwide fame. Bruno Walter conducted it in Berlin the following season; it was heard as far afield as Buenos Aires and Philadelphia. In New York in 1933, the critic Olin Downes declared it a “marvel of compactness, sincerity and imagination.”
But was the symphony flawed? In 1937, The New York Times observed that “many accusing fingers have been pointed at its numerous derivations”—another way of saying that, if you like, you can play “spot the influence,” listening for inspiration from Igor Stravinsky, Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, and Gustav Mahler, to name a few. But this is unsurprising in an ambitious student work. Meanwhile, there are surprises, and originality, aplenty. Consider the opening: where Beethoven and his Romantic successors have trained us to expect portentous themes and dramatic calls to attention, Shostakovich gives us a quirky duet for bassoon and muted trumpet. We could be listening to chamber music. Or Ravel. Or Stravinsky’s ballet about the tragic puppet, Petrushka.
The nod to Petrushka is reinforced by the introduction of the composer’s own instrument, the piano—notable not just for its sparkling brilliance but for its physicality. Watch the pianist at the thrilling conclusion to the second movement, when, in a memorable gesture that has been likened to the closing of a book, their right hand crosses over to play a single low note at the left-hand end of the keyboard.
With the first two movements, Shostakovich creates an atmosphere of cinematic vividness and disruptive, circus-like juxtapositions, in which his admiration for the films of Charlie Chaplin is apparent. A racing clarinet solo meets a nostalgic flute waltz; a march shows up in triple time;
tempestuous action abuts magical stillness; apparent humor has ominous undertones.
To this point, the symphony has inhabited an up-to-date sound world. In the slow third movement, it pivots to the emotional sweep and intensity of 19th-century romanticism. Everybody, it seems, found fault with this movement, including Malko, who described it as “doubtful,” and Shostakovich’s own teacher, Maximilian Steinberg, who disliked its “tortured lyricism.” But we can choose to revel in its melancholic oboe and cello themes, and its impassioned candor.
In an astringent counterpoint to the richness of the slow movement, a snare drum roll leads directly into the stormy finale, which, although fast in tempo overall, begins with an expansive slow introduction. Then, with whirlwind clarinets and piano, the cinematic quality of the symphony returns, plunging us back into a world of dramatic contrasts and, ultimately, an assertion of the optimism and confidence you’d expect from a composer at the beginning of his career.
First performance: May 12, 1926, by the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) Philharmonic in Russia, Nikolai Malko conducting
First SLSO performance: March 3, 1939, Carlos Chavez conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: January 19, 2018, David Robertson conducting
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, strings
Approximate duration: 28 minutes
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.