It’s not news, but it bears repeating: the act of composition is never individual or solitary. Composers are inevitably in conversation with other composers, living and dead—conversations that are sometimes cordial, sometimes heated, sometimes uncomprehending. And any work inevitably involves learning from, borrowing (or even stealing) from, and pushing back against your contemporaries and predecessors. This afternoon’s concert focuses on a particular kind of relationship among historically separated composers. Each of our offerings involves the transformation of music written by someone else in a prior century—and does so in a way that leaves the voices of both the original composer and the borrower clearly audible. Thus, although there are three composers on the program listing, there are actually six composers on the concert. Or, more accurately seven or eight or nine or… The network of musical conversations gets more and more dizzying the closer you look.
We begin with the Orchestral Suite No. 4 (Mozartiana), composed in 1887 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and based on four mainly lesser-known works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). You might expect an interaction between Tchaikovsky and Mozart to be contentious rather than cordial. Tchaikovsky, especially at that time (in between Manfred and the Fifth Symphony), was the master of heightened, even excessively raw, angst-filled drama; Mozart, even at his most emotional, was a model of clarity and moderation. Yet in fact, Tchaikovsky idolized Mozart—and he renovated these works with surprising tact. Yes, he added a romantic warmth and color, but his interventions were always under control.
The Suite begins with colorful orchestrations of two daring piano works that Mozart wrote late in his career. The first is especially shocking—a canonic Gigue that’s harmonically so disorienting you might momentarily think it was written in the twentieth century. The chromatic Minuet that follows is not so extreme, but it too is exploring new expressive territory. At this point, another composer enters the Suite. For although the third movement, subtitled “Preghiera” (“Prayer”), is ostensibly based on Mozart’s choral Ave Verum Corpus, it is actually based on an adaptation of that piece by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). And a fourth composer’s voice joins in for the finale, the longest movement, which is an orchestration of Mozart’s variations on an opera aria by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787).
The central work on this afternoon’s concert is the Fantasia para un gentilhombre for guitar and orchestra by Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999). Rodrigo is best known for his 1939 Concierto de Aranjuez, perhaps the most widely-performed guitar concerto ever written. (It gained additional fame through a jazz adaptation by Miles Davis and Gil Evans.) Still, the Fantasia has been nearly as popular. Composed in 1954 for the great guitarist Andres Segovia, it is based on historically pivotal guitar music by 17th-century Spanish composer Gaspar Sanz (c. 1640-1710)—music that in turn took off from older folk dances. Rodrigo’s score takes more liberties with his sources than Tchaikovsky’s does; but despite Rodrigo’s expansion and development of the originals, despite his spiffy orchestration and often spiced-up harmonies (especially in the last movement), the melodic profile and spirit of Sanz’s originals remain front and center. This Fantasia was itself later adapted for flute and orchestra. Given Rodrigo’s inspiration, however, it’s no surprise that the guitar version is more effective.
The canniest act of ventriloquism on this afternoon’s concert is Pulcinella by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Like The Rite of Spring, which we performed on Masterworks 5 just two months ago, it was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes in Paris; and like The Rite, it took its audience by surprise. But whereas The Rite, in 1913, used unparalleled vehemence, weight, dissonance, and driving rhythmic force to shove its listeners forward into modernism, Pulcinella, in 1920, used lightness, wit, and an ostentatious reliance on eighteenth-century sources to cajole its listeners to think back in musical history.
There were other major differences in the scores that might well have tripped up the expectations of its first listeners as well. Instead of a scenario of pagan brutality, Pulcinella took its inspiration from commedia dell’arte; and instead of the huge, post-romantic orchestra demanded by The Rite, Pulcinella called on a smaller ensemble that, except for the presence of a single trombone, could well have been used by Mozart. (The post-War economy may have had some influence here). Stravinsky was obviously moving in a new direction—and while The Rite continued to influence composers, Stravinsky himself never again wrote anything like it, turning instead, for the next few decades, to neo-classicism. The term “neo-classicism” has a variety of meanings, and various versions of the style have been around for nearly two centuries. Pulcinella, however, is arguably the work in which the Stravinskian brand of the technique reached its full flowering.
In Pulcinella, Stravinsky didn’t simply borrow old musical procedures. Like the other two works on the concert, the score filches actual musical material. At the time, everyone involved in the project believed that Stravinsky was recasting music by the short-lived Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). It turns out, though (and a few more voices now enter the conversation), most of it was falsely attributed (for financial reasons?) to Pergolesi, having in fact been written by minor composers like Domenico Gallo and Carlo Ignazio Monza who would be nearly forgotten were it not for their reappearance in modern garb here. In fact, just to add a twist to this already complex web, it’s probable that one piece Stravinsky borrowed was actually itself a conscious counterfeit by late nineteenth-century composer Alessandro Parisotti.
What’s the difference between the originals and Stravinsky’s revisions? As the composer himself put it, “I knew that I could not produce a ‘forgery’ of Pergolesi because my motor habits are so different; at best, I could repeat him in my own accent.” And that accent, even though it’s often subtle, makes all the difference. The source material is, to be honest, fairly unremarkable; Stravinsky’s alchemistic re-imagining, which turns rhinestones into the highest quality diamonds, is one of the treasures of twentieth-century orchestral repertoire. The original ballet included a number of vocal movements; Stravinsky later made a condensed suite for orchestra alone. That’s the version that’s most often encountered, and the one being offered this afternoon.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org