Sunday, January 26, 2020 – “Just Another Variation”

Program Notes – January 26, 2020

By Benjamin Pomerance

Fancy Free: Three Dance Variations. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Leonard Bernstein

“From the moment the action begins, with a juke box wailing behind the curtain, the ballet is strictly wartime America, 1944. The curtain rises on a street corner with a lamp post, a side-street bar, and New York skyscrapers pricked out with a crazy pattern of lights, making a dizzying backdrop. Three sailors explode onto the stage. They are on twenty-four-hour shore leave in the city and on the prowl for girls.”

                                                                                                — Leonard Bernstein

On a mundane morning in 1943, Samuel and Jennie Bernstein were relaxing at the New York City apartment rented by their son. It was a rare moment of calm for their 25-year-old child, a human whirlwind who often shook off life’s banalities — sleeping, eating, hygiene — in favor of some quixotic musical pursuit. His parents, Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who sold hairdressing supplies in Lawrence, Massachusetts, feared for his health. This visit was an intervention, an attempt to convince him to relax.

And then a message arrived from Carnegie Hall. Bruno Walter had the flu. The titanic maestro who was scheduled to guest conduct the New York Philharmonic that evening couldn’t even stand up. Could young Leonard Bernstein, recently appointed as Artur Rodzinski’s assistant with the Philharmonic, step in without a single rehearsal and pull off the Houdini act of leading the ensemble in works by Wagner, Schumann, and Strauss?

The answer was yes, of course, because Leonard Bernstein almost always said yes. He strode onto the podium that night with the confidence of a maestro twice his age, because Leonard Bernstein never lacked for confidence when the stakes were high and the cameras were rolling. And at the end of the night, the Carnegie crowd bathed their new champion with bravos.

From that night forward, the musical universe knew Leonard Bernstein the conductor. But it wasn’t until the following year that they learned about Leonard Bernstein the composer. Another 25-year-old ascending star, choreographer Jerome Robbins, tracked down Bernstein and described his desire for a new ballet, one that would capture the flavor of contemporary New York City. Then he asked Bernstein to write the score. And, of course, Bernstein said yes.

The result of the flying sparks between these often-tempestuous collaborators was a ballet unlike anything that the New York City crowds had witnessed before. Titled Fancy Free and set on the streets of the Big Apple, the interactions between three sailors turned loose in the city and the women whom they pursue were injected not just with classical ballet, but with dance steps that younger audiences recognized as their own. The soft-shoe, the lindy, the boogie-woogie, the beloved swing moves all were there, vibrantly presented on the Metropolitan Opera stage.

“Good artists borrow,” Pablo Picasso allegedly joked at a Parisian party. “Great artists steal.” From this vantage point, one can find yet another reason to laud Leonard Bernstein as a truly great artist. In Fancy Free, Bernstein quoted liberally from some of the most prolific ballet composers of the twentieth century: Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue received plenty of orchestral nods, too.

But through these references to the past, Bernstein created something that was unmistakably a product of the present. Those syncopated rhythms, those jarringly well-placed dissonances, those sultry blues chords, those strutting jazz numbers — all of it echoed the pulse of a gritty yet beautiful city exploding out of old norms into new devil-may-care modernity. Critics took notice, effusively praising both the composer and the choreographer for adroitly encapsulating this time and this place.

So they did it all again. Before the year was over, Bernstein and Robbins agreed to expand the plot of Fancy Free and turn it into a musical: the still-beloved On The Town. Three years after that, Robbins approached Bernstein about a new concept: a contemporary adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. A decade later, after many twists and turns, the realization of that idea — West Side Story — opened on Broadway.

“How did I know,” quipped Samuel Bernstein, by now resigned to the fact that his child would always abandon sleep and basic healthcare in pursuits of musical horizons, “that my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?” Yet somehow, Jerome Robbins knew, taking an emerging conductor and handing over the keys for that man to become a compositional mastermind. For that foresight, the musical world still owes the choreographer a debt.

Variations on a Rococo Theme. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Piotr Illyich Tchaikovsky

“The Christ of music.”

                                                                        — Tchaikovsky, describing Mozart

It had been a terrible month. To be fair, happiness was never an emotion commonly linked with Piotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, a man who agonized over his compositions, his reputation, his sexuality, and every other aspect of his life. Indeed, while the official record states that Tchaikovsky’s death at the age of fifty-three was due to cholera, plenty of historians speculate that the composer actually died by suicide.

But December 1876 had been particularly disheartening, even by Tchaikovsky’s standards. His opera Vakula the Smith had experienced what Tchaikovsky described as “a brilliant failure” in its premiere in Saint Petersburg. In Paris, the reviews of his orchestral fantasy on the story of Romeo and Juliet were dismal. In Vienna, criticisms of the same composition were even worse.

All of these calamities occurred during a two-week stretch at the beginning of the month, leaving Tchaikovsky mentally despondent and physically ill. Yet the composer still had work to do. He had accepted a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory, a job that he disliked but a necessary source of steady income. Introverted and introspective, he was ill-suited for the classroom and contemplated quitting — until he crossed paths with another conservatory professor who shared the same traits.

Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Fitzenhagen, a transplant from Germany, was a talented cellist, becoming first chair of his section in the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society when he was only twenty-two years old. Bookish and reserved in personality, he nonetheless sought opportunities to showcase the soloistic capacities of his instrument. In Tchaikovsky, he saw a potential source for a new cello concerto. Eventually, one shy man approached the other at the conservatory, and the commission for the composition was born.

It was this new work that consumed Tchaikovsky’s attention in December 1876 after the month’s calamitous start. In the aftermath of such anguish, he retreated into the musical escapism that he often enjoyed, pretending that he was not composing in the late-nineteenth century at all, but rather was writing in the era of Mozart, whom Tchaikovsky venerated as the finest of all composers. The structure and order of the Classical Era, the grace and charm coupled with drama that emerges in Mozart’s creations, represented a life that Tchaikovsky yearned to live.

With this Mozart-focused mindset, the composition for cello and orchestra took shape. To hearken back to this earlier era, Tchaikovsky reduced the size of the orchestra to eighteenth-century dimensions, seeking a more transparent sound. For the solo cello, he wrote the types of ever-unfolding lyrical melodies that Tchaikovsky associated with the arias in Mozart’s operas. And to complete the nostalgic picture, he imbued the work with plenty of winsome flourishes and bravura devices that would have felt right at home in a Viennese palace.

These characteristics underscore the composition’s title, with the word “rococo” referring to the exceptionally ornamental architectural style popular in the Classical Era. Rococo designers embellished walls and ceilings with interlacing curves and shapes that resembled seashells and flowers. Tchaikovsky infused his commission for Fitzenhagen with similar adornments, looking back to an era where, in the words of Tchaikovsky biographer Edward Garden, “the frustrations and terrors of the present existence could be forgotten for a time in contemplation of the past.”

But another frustration of the present existence awaited. When Fitzenhagen received his new music from Tchaikovsky, the cellist immediately began revising it, changing the order of the variations, omitting one section entirely, and amending the solo cello part considerably. He then sent these revisions to Tchaikovsky’s publisher, who wrote to Tchaikovsky in a rage: “Horrible Fitzenhagen insists on changing your cello piece. He wants to ‘cello’ it up and claims you gave him permission. Good God!”

Yet Tchaikovsky — perhaps too tired from the events of the wretched month, perhaps too insecure in his own talents — did not object. Thus, the music that was published could be accurately billed as “by Tchaikovsky, arranged by Fitzenhagen.” Since then, musicologists have spilled plenty of ink evaluating what Fitzenhagen did to Tchaikovsky’s work. In the final analysis, though, perhaps this piece is best seen as exactly what the composer intended it to be: a wistful look to a time Tchaikovsky never knew, a rosy picture of a life that might have been.

Symphony No. 4 in E Minor. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Johannes Brahms

“I’m really afraid [the Fourth Symphony] tastes like the climate here. The cherries don’t ripen in these parts; you wouldn’t eat them!”

                                                                                                            — Johannes Brahms

In the summers of 1884 and 1885, the eternally restless Johannes Brahms decamped for Mürzzuschlag, a charming village in northeastern Austria. He rented rooms overlooking the town square, moved in with a piano of decent quality, and — when not devouring bountiful meals at local taverns or hiking the trails around the community — immersed himself in his work. This was the fifth decade of his life, and music aficionados considered him a celebrity. Even in his attempt to escape the attention that received in Vienna, fame followed him into the countryside.

One day, Brahms was returning from a hike when he noticed two people standing in front of the house where he had rented his lodgings. The windows were open, and the sounds of somebody playing the piano from inside the building drifted into the air. As the composer drew closer, he was amused to overhear a breathless conversation between the two gawkers. “Do you hear?” one of them said, gesturing to the open window. “Brahms is playing!” Chuckling quietly, Brahms walked past the two onlookers, who completely ignored the composer, and went inside.

Yet while it certainly wasn’t Brahms whom this duo heard playing on that day, the composer did plenty of playing and writing during his Mürzzuschlag seasons. Although he would live for more than a decade longer, Brahms was already concerned about his own demise, even sending instructions to his publisher about what to do with his music “if the most human thing should happen to me.” With this peculiar emotional juxtaposition of fearing the darkness of death and reveling in the natural beauty of his surroundings, he set out to write a symphony.

He had never planned on doing such a thing. “You can’t have any idea what it is like to have such a giant marching behind you,” he declared in 1872. The giant was Ludwig van Beethoven, innovator of nine symphonies that revolutionized the art form and left Brahms — and others — wondering if there was anything else left to be said symphonically. Four years after this pronouncement, however, Brahms published his first symphony. His second symphony reached the public shortly thereafter in 1877, and his third not long after that in 1882-83.

Each of these three works, however, contained echoes of Beethoven, providing the same indomitable will, the same ultimate sense of humanity’s triumph. In his fourth offering, Brahms found himself striking a notably different character. This was a work of twilight, not sunrise, an elegy from an older man in a rapidly changing world. Prolonged moments of agitation appeared and never reached neat resolutions, leaving an unsettled bleakness over the whole affair.

Much like Tchaikovsky in the Variations on a Rococo Theme, Brahms ended his journey by looking backward. Yet while Tchaikovsky found sunny elegance in the Classical Era’s formality, Brahms wrapped melancholy and resignation into one of Western music’s oldest structures. Brass and woodwind instruments announce a melody at the outset of the final movement, a theme that then resurfaces — through a common Baroque form known as a passacaglia — in thirty-two variations, each one representing a distinctly heartfelt character.

By the middle of the movement, a heart-wrenching flute solo followed by a shift into serene orchestral passages offers the listeners at least a few rays of hope. But this hope is dashed by an abrupt swing into some of the most violent music that Brahms ever composed, escalating to a devastating minor key finale. “The conclusion of this movement, burning with shattering tragedy, is a true orgy of destruction,” declared conductor Felix Weingartner in 1909. “It is a terrible counterpart to the transports of joy at the end of the last symphony of Beethoven.”

Initially, it was too much for even Brahms’s closest friends to absorb. After Brahms and a friend played a piano reduction of the symphony at a gathering of his confidants, the critic Eduard Hanslick broke the ensuing silence by declaring “I feel I’ve just been beaten up by two terribly intelligent people.” The next day, the writer Max Kalbeck showed up at Brahms’s apartment, urging the composer to conduct major surgery on the composition.

Only Clara Schumann, the woman whom the lifelong bachelor Brahms loved — a problem given that he was also close friends with her husband, Robert — seemed to comprehend what Brahms had done. “It is as though one lay in springtime among the blossoming flowers,” she said in response to hearing the new symphony, “and joy and sorrow filled one’s soul in turn.”

Ultimately, the public agreed with Clara. Reviews were excellent after Brahms conducted the symphony’s premiere on October 25, 1885, and public perceptions of the work have remained positive ever since. In a sense, the composer had finally achieved what he once deemed impossible. Even Beethoven, in all of his compositional audacity, had not dared to write a symphony that reached such an overwhelmingly crushing conclusion. The giant marching behind Brahms had been shed at last, only to be replaced by the shadows that he saw looming ahead.


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