Since its inception more than three years ago, Symphoria has been committed not only to bringing great music to our community, but also to presenting it in continually refreshing ways. Sometimes we offer unfamiliar works and composers (old and new). Sometimes we offer chestnuts in contexts that illuminate them from a new perspective. Sometimes we break down traditional ideas about where concerts should take place. This afternoon’s program, which might have been titled “Orchestra on a Diet,” furthers that mission by taking advantage of the intimate space of St. Paul’s to offer two masterpieces that have fallen through the cracks—works too big to feature on most chamber music programs but too small for more traditional symphony orchestras to take on. At the time these pieces were written, their composers—Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)—were most famous for compositions that exploited large orchestral forces. But as we’ll hear, they also knew how to get astonishing color from small groups, too.
It may seem odd to say that Appalachian Spring (1943-44) has fallen through the cracks—but in a sense it has, as we can see by looking at its history. It was originally commissioned for Martha Graham’s ballet company. Since the group traveled, Graham wanted a portable ensemble. Copland thus wrote the ballet for an orchestra of a mere 13 players (actually, a bit larger than Graham’s usual groups). He was later persuaded, however, to adapt it, slightly shortened, for full orchestra. This heftier version, premiered in 1945, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and to become one of Copland’s most popular compositions; in fact, it was played on Symphoria’s very first season. The chamber version—both the full-length original and the suite being performed today, which incorporates the cuts that Copland made when he made the full-orchestra suite—has, in contrast, tended to be ignored. That’s unfortunate, since this more intimate version has its special virtues.
Those virtues stem from Copland’s double-sided aesthetic. In some pieces, he was a modernist whose music was tough, unyielding, and entirely lacking in any nationalist flavor. In others, even though he was a New Yorker and a quintessential outsider (a Jewish homosexual whose left wing sympathies brought him under Senate investigation), he was the composer most responsible for creating the vernacular, outdoorsy classical-music style that has come to represent the American heartland—proof of the way that great art can transcend personal circumstances. Those two sides of Copland’s aesthetic appear together in Appalachian Spring. It was originally conceived as an abstract work inspired mainly by Graham’s physical motions; but as the ballet developed, it turned into what became a touchstone of nostalgic Americana. Copland had an uncanny ability to invent music that sounded like folk music, but while it may sound like a quilt made up of half-remembered folk tunes, this piece includes only one non-original melody—the Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” Originally composed by Joseph Brackett in the middle of the nineteenth century, it become widely known largely through Copland’s decision to use it.
That fundamental duality between the abstract and the folksy, so central to Appalachian Spring, is far clearer in the original scoring. Shorn of the familiar lushness—and the grandeur of the brass—the intellectual rigor of the music comes to the fore as its potential for sentimentality retreats. At the same time, there’s a kind of home-spun quality to the chamber version—it’s more like something that, at least in our imaginations, seems appropriate to 19th century pioneers. What’s common to both versions is the sheer charisma of the score.
Stravinsky’s decision to use a mini-orchestra (seven players) for The Soldier’s Tale (1918) also has its source in pragmatic concerns. He had shaken the world a few years earlier with The Rite of Spring, written for the kind of super-orchestra favored by Mahler and Strauss (the brass contingent alone was nearly three times the size of the entire ensemble for Soldier’s Tale). The war put the brakes on that kind of extravagance, and composers found themselves turning to smaller forces. In a sense, this is still “orchestral” music, for although the group is stripped down to the minimum, Stravinsky does a plausible job of emulating a modern symphony orchestra. The woodwind, brass, and strings sections are each represented by a pair of instruments, high and low: clarinet and bassoon; cornet and trombone; and violin and bass; a percussionist playing a large assortment of instruments fills out the sound. At the same time, The Soldier’s Tale calls for the kind of tight ensemble interaction we normally associate with chamber music. Besides a virtuoso septet (the violin part is especially brilliant), the original score calls for three actors as well; and while Stravinsky later created compressed versions for instruments alone, today offers a rare chance to hear the full score.
The difference between The Rite and The Soldier’s Tale is not just a matter of scale—it’s also a matter of idiom. Rhythm remained predominant in Stravinsky’s musical vocabulary, but the visceral ferocity of The Rite of Spring was replaced by something defter and more ironic, with its base in American pop music, especially early jazz. The subject matter, too, changed. Forsaking the ritual X-rated violence of rape and human sacrifice, he turned to something lighter and more suitable for a broader audience: one of the Russian folk tales collected by Alexander Afanas’ev, expanded and rendered into French by C.F. Ramuz. The story centers on a soldier, a princess, a violin, and a deal with the devil—and in his explanation of why he loves to play the part of the devil, G. Roberts Kolb gives us a sense of the work’s spirit. “It’s fun being the devil—what can I tell you? I don’t play the devil as scary—the devil gets his way because he entertains and charms.” As for the details of the story—no spoilers here, since you’ll hear it soon enough.
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org