The First World War ended almost exactly 100 years ago, an event that will be commemorated on our next Masterworks program (Masterworks 3, November 3). This afternoon’s concert serves as a kind of prelude to that concert, reflecting both on that war in particular and on war in general. We open with Le Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), a work with a fairly complex history. Ravel began it as a piano piece to celebrate the glories of the French baroque; but in the wake of his horrific experiences as a truck driver during the war (experiences that led to bouts of depression), the composition took a radically different turn. Ravel maintained the surface of his original idea, keeping the form of a baroque dance suite; but Tombeau was reconceived to honor six friends who had died in battle. The piano suite was composed between 1914 and 1917; in 1919, Ravel orchestrated and re-ordered four of the movements (Prelude, Forlane, Minuet, and Rigaudon), and that is the version we’ll be hearing today.
Ravel went on to compose two more orchestral works that are more loosely associated with the war—La Valse (1919–20) and the Left-Hand Piano Concerto (written in 1929–30 for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right hand in battle). Both are formidable, often violent works that unleash large orchestral forces to express Ravel’s residual cynicism. Tombeau, in contrast, is a restrained work for a modestly sized ensemble. Since its aim is to celebrate the spirit of his friends, it’s more nostalgic than painful, even though its connection to the carnage of the war is more direct.
Stravinsky famously dubbed Ravel “the most precise Swiss watchmaker,” and nothing Ravel wrote exhibits that precision more vividly than Tombeau. The woodwind writing is especially sophisticated, offering abundant opportunities for the first oboe in particular, opportunities obvious from the very opening bars. Principal oboist Jillian Honn goes so far as to compare Tombeau to the Mozart Oboe Concerto: learning it is a “lifelong project that constantly evolves with more experience that you have. You need to have an unbelievable attention to detail” (there are what she calls “baffling technical difficulties”), but “you also have to have a lot of personality to execute it well, which is what I think is most interesting about it.” Excerpts from the first and third movements show up regularly on oboe auditions; Jillian, however, looks forward most eagerly to the fourth: “It’s very exciting, and then out of nowhere there’s this really rich and mysterious oboe solo”—twice briefly echoed by the English horn. “It has so much style packed into it, it’s so indulgent—it’s almost like the oboe takes over everything.” Today’s performance, Jillian’s first of Tombeau, is a dream fulfilled.
This afternoon’s concert concludes with The Mass in Time of War—also known as the Paukenmesse because of the prominent role of the timpani (Pauken in German)—by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809). After his great triumph in London, where he presented his last twelve symphonies (the ones he’s most famous for), Haydn shifted his priorities, producing a series of exceptional, symphonically conceived choral works capped by The Creation and The Seasons. The Mass in Time of War—one of a series of six commissioned to celebrate the name-day of Princess Maria Hermenegild, the wife of his patron—was written in 1796, during the unstable period following the French Revolution, when antagonism between France and Austria produced a continuing series of conflicts. It’s an elaborate and grandly orchestrated work, with plenty of high drama; and its references to the political unease are, as conductor Larry Loh puts it, “not obvious.” Indeed, its sunny C Major might seem more celebratory than anguished. Nonetheless, it’s shot through with passages in C minor (among others, the “Et incarnatus” section of the “Credo”) that seem especially dark when you consider the circumstances under which the Mass was composed. Add to this the intensity of the “Agnus Dei,” with its threatening drumbeats, and the urgency of the final “Dona nobis pacem,” and the work takes on a special flavor that, while subtle, is nonetheless troubling.
Whatever these traces of the anxiety of the times, there’s no reason to believe that Haydn wrote the Mass as a polemic with a particular position. Nonetheless, it has, over the years, increasingly come to be seen as a token of anti-war sentiment. That’s been especially true since a free January 1973 performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein, held in the Washington National Cathedral as counterpoint to the official concert for Nixon’s second inauguration during the Vietnam War. It was a major cultural occasion; in fact, Larry commemorated the event when he conducted the Mass in the same venue as part of the Bernstein centennial celebration last year.
Yet for all his admiration for Bernstein, Larry’s approach to the work is quite different: Bernstein had a “really romantic” view of the piece, but Larry says he “can’t hear it that way.” One of Symphoria’s virtues as an orchestra is its stylistic flexibility—including their ability to “to play classically rather than romantically for Mozart and Haydn. And that’s how we’ll do it. The music works so perfectly that way.”
In between these two works, we offer the brief 1946 Lyric for Strings by George Walker (b. 1922), a prodigiously talented teacher and piano virtuoso (the first African-American to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he debuted with the then relatively unfamiliar Rachmaninoff Third Concerto), as well as a composer. Lyric for Strings is by far his most popular piece. It’s an expansion for string orchestra of a movement that was originally part of a string quartet; and if its history reminds you of the Barber Adagio for Strings (written about a decade earlier, and similarly drawn from a string quartet), its music may do so as well—just as it may remind you, in spirit, of the Adagietto for strings and harp from the Mahler Fifth Symphony. Originally entitled Lament, it written as a memorial for Walker’s grandmother—but while it has nothing directly to do with war, its general spirit suits this concert well.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org