Our featured work tonight is The Planets (1914-1916) by British composer Gustav Holst (1874–1934). If there’s any work on the season that needs no introduction, it’s probably this one. After all, since its first public performance roughly a century ago, it has been one of the most popular works in the repertoire, played not only by virtually all orchestras but also adapted for band and taken up, in whole or in part, by a variety of jazz and rock groups as well. (It’s also been a great influence on film composers, most obviously John Williams, whose Star Wars music draws much of its nourishment from Holst). And even if you’ve never heard the work before, it’s so immersive in its impact that, as soon as you start to listen, you’re caught up.
True, there’s a programmatic meaning behind it. Each of the seven movements represents a different planet (all the planets except for Earth), and each takes its spirit from an astrological connection. But you hardly need to know that the opening movement represents “Mars, The Bringer of War” to feel the terrifying menace of the First World War. Nor do you need to know that the fourth movement represents “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity” to be uplifted (in fact, the noble big tune at its center has been adapted as a hymn). The work’s magnificent richness of color, its unrivalled variety (few other works cover such a range of moods), and its canny dramatic strokes (especially its eerie end) all make textual explanation nearly irrelevant.
The concert opens with a similarly celestial piece, Rainbow Body by the American composer Christopher Theofanidis (b. 1967). Written in 2000, it’s been so widely performed and so warmly embraced by listeners that it has become, in conductor Larry Loh’s words, a “modern classic.” The composer tells us that the work has a double inspiration. First, there’s his fascination with the music by the medieval philosopher and composer Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179): the work is based on the chant “Ave Maria, o auctrix vite,” which appears clearly several times in the piece and which more subtly generates the musical material elsewhere. (To make it easier to hear, we’ll precede the Rainbow Body with a performance of the chant itself.) Second, and more directly relevant to the Holst, there’s what the composer calls “the Tibetan Buddhist idea of ‘Rainbow Body,’ which is that when an enlightened being dies physically, his or her body is absorbed directly back into the universe as energy, as light.” As with The Planets, though, you don’t need much background to appreciate Rainbow Body, which shares Holst’s dramatic immediacy and orchestral brilliance (Larry points, among other things, to the way Theofanidis uses trombones to suggest “deep space”).
Our centerpiece, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), is the one work on the program without a cosmic connection. But it does have the same kind of perennial popularity that The Planets does; and it does, like Rainbow Body, build on pre-existing musical material. In this case, the composer, arguably the greatest pianist of the 20th century, offers up an homage to the greatest violinist of the 19th, Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840), using the familiar 24th Caprice as his starting point. (Rachmaninoff’s work can also, less directly, be seen as an homage to the greatest pianist of the 19th century, Franz Liszt, who also recast Paganini’s virtuosic violin music for piano).
Born in Russia, Rachmaninoff emigrated after the Russian Revolution, living briefly in Europe before settling in the United States in 1918. He continued his successful career as a pianist, but his output as a composer dropped considerably. Other than a series of transcriptions and arrangements, he wrote only six works in the last 25 years of his life. It’s hard to be sure what caused the slowdown; it was certainly not any loss of compositional skill, since for many listeners, his American works are among the most finely crafted that he ever wrote. In any case, most of his late music—perhaps viewed as “old-fashioned” by a public molded in part by the Jazz Age—was slow to catch on, and even today it doesn’t have the popular cachet of his Russian output. The one exception is the Rhapsody, a hit from its first performance in 1934.
Structurally, the work follows a traditional theme-and-variations format—but with a few twists. For instance, after the brief introduction, the work begins not with the theme, but with the first variation—only turning to the theme itself after that. Then, too, besides the “main” theme, there is a secondary theme snaking through the Rhapsody: the “Dies Irae,” the plain-chant
setting of the “day of wrath” from the Latin Requiem Mass. The theme was often used by 19th and 20th century composers; it shows up, for instance, in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique and Liszt’s Totentanz (both performed by Symphoria in the last few years). There may be a kind of musical pun going on here. Paganini’s virtuosity was such that he was rumored to be in league with the devil. But beyond that, no composer was as preoccupied with this theme as Rachmaninoff, who turned to it again and again. Here, it shows up first in the piano in the sixth variation, and it nearly takes over the piece as the brass shout it out in the final variation.
Tonight’s soloist, Melissa Marse—who, coincidentally, gave her first “official” performance of the Rhapsody under Larry’s direction several years ago—has a special affection for the theme-and-variation form. “So much in life is about the destination,” she says, “but the variation form is more about enjoying the journey.” And this journey is especially kaleidoscopic. As Melissa puts it, it’s “like spending a day at the amusement park. Just as Rachmaninoff acquaints us with a new scene or mood, it is time to move on—sometimes peacefully, at times ominously, and at other times holding on for dear life!” She also enjoys the way the Rhapsody connects to a broad range of other music—including popular music. “I may be a classical pianist,” she says, “but I am very much entrenched in 21st century pop culture, movies, and music. Therefore, I find myself constantly reinventing these variations as I play them. I hear everything from Harry Potter to Swan Lake, and while most of my past teachers would cringe with disagreement, perhaps even a bit of Barbra Streisand!” Does that connection to our time make the piece simple or superficial? Absolutely not, she says. “Through sheer virtuosity, lyricism, and pure innovation, this set of variations continues to inform and entertain both the soloist and listener. I hope you find it as fulfilling and exciting as I do!”
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org