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Program Notes: Tchaikovsky's Sixth

Friday, May 3, 2019 at 10:30am

Saturday, May 4, 2019 at 8:00pm

Leonard Slatkin, conductor

Hila Plitmann, soprano

BARBER Symphony No. 1 in One Movement, op. 9

JEFF BEAL The Paper Lined Shack (World Premiere)

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 74, "Pathétique"



Born: March 9, 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania

Died: January 23, 1981, New York City, New York

Symphony No. 1 in One Movement, op. 9

Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 (also known as Symphony in One Movement), was composed in Rome during the years 1935 and 1936, after Barber had been awarded the American Prix de Rome at age 25.

The symphony’s Rome premiere, in December 1936, was quickly followed by a premiere in the United States. The following year, the symphony was the first symphonic work by an American composer to be performed at the Salzburg Festival. Barber later revised the symphony, and this new version was premiered in 1942 by the New York Philharmonic. The Symphony in One Movement was followed by a Second Symphony as well as three operas, several other orchestral works, and works for voice and piano and other assorted chamber works.

Barber was born in Pennsylvania in 1910 and showed an inclination for music from a young age, composing an operetta at age ten, which he set to a libretto written by his family’s cook. Barber was deemed “conservative” by critics during his lifetime because he resisted the trends towards experimental styles, such as atonality and serialism, in which his contemporaries were beginning to compose.

Instead, Barber focused on lyrical, Romantic-tinged works that explored 19th-century forms while still occasionally exploring more modern elements. Barber was a prolific composer from his childhood through to his death at age 70. Some of his most well-known works, such as the Adagio for Strings and the First Symphony, were composed when he was only in his twenties.

Barber did not assign any extra-musical associations to his First Symphony, meaning that there is no subtitle or linguistic description attached to the roughly 20-minute symphony. Because there are no words or images guiding the listener through Barber’s sonic narrative, we can hear the drama occurring fully within the music itself.

This symphony is unique in its form: music critic Richard Freed points out that one-movement symphonies were pretty much unheard-of at the time Barber composed this work, and, as such, it should not come as a surprise that ultimately the symphony “breaks down into sections more or less corresponding to those of a conventional four-movement work.”

Samuel Barber’s symphony opens with a soaring melody that catches the listener in an updrift and sweeps us through a tumultuous array of musical emotions: longing, regret, pensiveness, passion.

Three major musical themes recur throughout the work. Barber briefly introduces each before exploring them more fully. During an extended Andante (moderately slow) passage, Barber introduces the second theme; as he wrote in his own program notes: “the second theme (oboe over muted strings) then appears in augmentation.” The final theme weaves itself in towards the ending, tying up loose ends and, as Barber put it, “serving as a recapitulation for the entire symphony.”

First Performance: December 13, 1936, Rome, Italy, Bernardino Molinari conducting the Philharmonic Augusteo Orchestra

First SLSO Performance: January 8, 1970, Walter Susskind conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: January 28, 1996, Boston, Massachusetts, Leonard Slatkin conducting

Scoring: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoon, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum and cymbals), harp, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 21 minutes



Born: June 20, 1963, Hayward, California

Now Lives: Los Angeles, California

The Paper Lined Shack (World Premiere)

Jeff Beal’s song cycle The Paper Lined Shack began with an accidental adventure. Beal and his wife Joan stumbled across his great-grandmother Della’s diary while unpacking boxes after a move. Although they were both awestruck by her writing, they didn’t find a “use” for these words until two decades later.

The Paper Lined Shack was commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in honor of Leonard Slatkin and the 50th anniversary of his debut with the orchestra. Beal writes that when he received the commission from the SLSO, he “decided on a narrative song cycle for soprano Hila Plitmann (a soloist with whom [Slatkin] has collaborated frequently).” It was in the middle of a search for “a strong female-driven text for Hila” that he remembered Della’s writings. Joan Beal then set about the task of constructing a libretto from passages and lines from the diary.

A song cycle in five movements, Beal’s work explores the bond that develops between a conductor and orchestra. Beal explains that “a relationship between an orchestra and its conductor spanning 50 years could be thought of as a remarkable marriage; an artistic garden with deep roots for both the garden and its gardener.” Indeed, although Slatkin travels internationally for conducting engagements with orchestras all over the world, he makes his home here in St. Louis.

The song cycle is not only a musical collaboration between orchestra, conductor, and vocalist, but the product of a collaborative process between composer and librettist. There is so much “blooming” to be found in his great-grandmother Della’s writings—sweet peas bloom, hearts bloom—and these images are reflected in music that pulls listeners into its narrative, with new themes and styles sprouting at every turn.

Beal and his wife “were both deeply moved by [Della’s] description of the garden, as seen through the window of her shack, moments after her husband died—as it so perfectly expressed how loss transforms us in an instant.” Hearts and sweet peas are blooming in the shadow of grief, which can change their appearance, from bitter to sweet, in an instant. Joan used this passage from Della’s writings as a central image in the libretto: “The sun was shining, as I looked out. The sweet peas he’d planted for me were blooming. The garden looked the same, but everything had changed.”

Beal, who is probably best known for his award-winning soundtrack for House of Cards, is no stranger to a dramatic musical language, and his new work simmers with tension as it shifts from style to style and from emotion to emotion.

Beal’s language carries some of Samuel Barber’s Romanticism. Beal describes his music as “steeped in jazz and improvisation, orchestral trumpet playing, family music-making at the piano, art, film, dance, and the open spaces found in nature, houses of faith, and concert halls.” This stylistic versatility conveys a range of emotions; according to Beal, these emotions emulate the “playfulness and lack of self-pity in the words and attitude” of the words of his great-grandmother Della.

First Performance: May 3, 2019, Leonard Slatkin conducting

Scoring: soprano, flute, alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, percussion (snare drum, triangle, vibraphone, 2 wood blocks), harp, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 25 minutes



Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia

Died: November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 74, “Pathétique”

The American-inflected neo-Romanticism that whets appetites during the first half of this program is satisfied with the full-fledged Romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony: a work that traverses a multitude of human emotions in the span of roughly 46 minutes.

Tchaikovksy’s sixth and final symphony was given a subtitle, which in Russian means “passionate,” but which has been mistranslated into French as pathétique, meaning “solemn” or “emotive.” It is then further misunderstood as a false cognate of the English word “pathetic.”

The subtitle is an allusion to Beethoven’s “Pathétique” piano sonata, but the symphony itself has remained an enigma for over a century; musicologists and music critics have sifted through the symphony attempting to crack the code they are convinced that Tchaikovsky left us in this work.

Tchaikovsky is often considered to be the first Russian composer to fully unite the “Russian” musical style of Glinka with the “European” style of composers like Beethoven and Schumann. Although Tchaikovsky spent much of his life traveling outside Russia, he promoted Russian music abroad and incorporated Russian folk songs into many of his compositions.

The Sixth Symphony was Tchaikovsky’s penultimate work, and he conducted the symphony’s premiere before falling gravely ill only five days later. His rapid decline resulted in his sudden death, the causes of which nobody can seem to agree on: Was it suicide? Cholera? Something else entirely?

Just as Tchaikovsky’s cause of death has sparked lively musicological debate, many have put forth hypotheses regarding the Sixth Symphony. Most prevalent among these hypotheses is the assertion that Tchaikovsky was bidding adieu to the world with a tragic suicide note; however, musicologist Roland John Wiley writes that “the popular notion that the Sixth Symphony is rife with confession warrants challenge, as does the idea, worthy of Hollywood, that it predicts the composer’s death.”

We don’t know the cause of Tchaikovksy’s death, and, likewise, we’ll probably never know what Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony actually “means.” Like Barber, who did not assign an explicit narrative to his symphony, the final version of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth does not have a meaning or message assigned to it by the composer. However, because many of Tchaikovsky’s works can be linked to situations in his life, many have assumed that musical “neutrality” here is impossible.

Indeed, even Tchaikovsky himself hinted that he had a program in mind when he wrote the work. The Sixth Symphony was dedicated by Tchaikovsky to his nephew Vladimir Davydov, for whom Tchaikovsky carried a deep infatuation, and to whom he might have made coded reference in his diaries with the letter “Z” (standing in for “something indefinite,” perhaps referring to Davydov or to his homosexuality more generally).

Musicologists have combed through the music itself—which, again like Barber’s First Symphony, contains major themes which recur over the course of its four movements—for clues to a narrative. Ultimately, however, no conclusions have been drawn, and we must continue to listen in wonderment, drawing our own conclusions about Tchaikovsky’s final symphony.

First Performance: October 28, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia, Tchaikovsky conducting

First SLSO Performance: January 9, 1906, Alfred Ernst conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: February 21, 2015, Juraj Valcˇuha conducting

Scoring: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam tam),

and strings

Performance Time: approximately 46 minutes


Program notes by Tim Munro, the SLSO's Creative Partner.


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