George Walker: Lyric for Strings
Pablo de Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen, op. 20
Jules Massenet: Meditation from Thaïs
Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 60 Il Distratto
Program Notes by Daniel Maki
Lyric for Strings | George Walker (1922 -2018)
In a better world it would be enough to say of George Walker simply that he had an unusually distinguished musical career marked by such achievements as a doctorate from one of this country’s leading conservatories, performing the notoriously difficult Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff at the age of 23 with a major orchestra, and receiving a Pulitzer Prize for music. In our imperfect reality, however, which, alas, is still not color-blind, it seems necessary to add that George Walker was the first person of color to receive a Doctorate from the Eastman School of Music, the first African-American instrumentalist to appear as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for music. Walker’s accomplishments fully qualify him not only as a pioneer among black musicians but simply as an important American musical figure in his own right who deserves to be much better known.
Walker’s multi-faceted career included extensive touring as a concert pianist, although he suffered from the racism of the time that made it difficult for black performers to find bookings. His distinguished academic career included appointments at many institutions including the New School for Social Research, Smith College, the Peabody Institute of Music, and Rutgers University. As a composer, his training included study at the Curtis Institute (he was one of the first black students admitted to that prestigious school) with Rosario Scalero, teacher also of Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. In Paris, his mentor was Nadia Boulanger, the legendary theorist and teacher of many of this country’s leading composers. Walker’s output would eventually include some 90 works in various genres ranging from orchestral works and chamber music to works for solo instruments as well as choral music. His style was eclectic, showing influences of nineteenth century romanticism, but also twentieth century techniques such as serialism. During his lifetime his works were performed by many orchestras here and abroad and he received commissions from such renowned organizations as the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Among his many honors were the ASCAP Aaron Copland Award, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and induction into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.
Lyric for Strings demonstrates the composer’s gift for beautifully crafted melodic writing. It is an early work, written while Walker was a student at the Curtis Institute. Originally conceived as the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1, it was dedicated to his grandmother, who had recently died. He then arranged the movement as a separate work for string orchestra, first under the title Lament but ultimately changing it to Lyric for Strings. It has become probably his best known work and one of the more often performed works in the repertoire of twentieth century American music.
The music begins with a serene, long-breathed melody that is skillfully imitated in the inner voices, creating a rich texture in which the multiple voices beautifully intertwine. A more agitated middle section features more intense minor key harmonies and builds to a passionate climax, punctuated by starkly articulated chords that interrupt the rhythmic flow. The more serene mood of the opening then returns and eventually tapers off to a peaceful conclusion. Some commentators have mentioned the possible influence of the famous Adagio for Strings written a few years earlier by Samuel Barber, himself once a student at the Curtis Institute, but whatever the influence might have been, Lyric for Strings stands on its own as a lyrical masterpiece.
Zigeunerweisen, Opus 20 “Gypsy Airs” by Pablo de Sarasate ( 1844 -1908)
The nineteenth century produced its share of violin virtuosi, as the violin vied with the piano for primacy as the leading solo instrument. Ranking high among these giants of horsehair and catgut was the great Pablo de Sarasate. Born in Spain, he displayed his prodigious ability at an early age, and was sent to Paris to study. He won the coveted premier prix of the Paris Conservatoire at the age of thirteen and began the life of a traveling virtuoso while still a teenager. Eventually his career would rival that of the legendary Paganini, and his name would become a household word throughout Europe as well as the Americas. Sarasate had many works written for him, including such staples of the violin repertoire as Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Eduard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol, and Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Incidentally, among his many fans was that passionate amateur violinist Sherlock Holmes, or so Conan Doyle tells us.
Figuring prominently on Sarasate’s programs were his own works, of which fifty opus numbers survive. A number of these pieces remain in the active violin repertoire, and although they make no claim to profundity, they are skillfully written show pieces that require a high level of virtuosity. Probably the most popular of his works and indeed one of the best known of all violin showpieces is Zigeunerweisen, written in 1878. Here Sarasate evokes the rich tradition of Gypsy (Romani) violin playing, an important part of Hungarian culture since the seventeenth century and a major source of inspiration for many composers of concert music. Sarasate apparently found material for this work while he was in Budapest for a concert tour in 1877. The tunes were found in a collection of verbunkos, an important kind of Hungarian folk music imitated by many composers, perhaps the best known being Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.
Zigeunerweisen falls into the two-part form typical of the verbunkos, which, incidentally, served as a kind of recruiting dance for the Austro-Hungarian army. The first is a slow portion known as a lassú, characterized by richly ornamented music in free improvisatory style played with melancholy passion in the gypsy violin manner and danced by the sergeant with dignified gestures. The second section, known as a friss, is a brilliant fast section danced by the twelve, probably younger and more agile hussars in energetic steps and then concluding with the most agile of all, doing heel clicks and jumps. All this activity is mirrored in the frantically virtuosic violin part which brings the work to a breathless conclusion.
Meditation from Thaïs by Jules Massenet (1842 -1912)
The essayist and dramatist Romain Rolland once famously said that the spirit of Massenet sleeps at the heart of every Frenchman. The reference was to the sensuously sweet style that made Massenet the most popular French opera composer of his day. Inevitably, there was a reaction and he was severely chastised by some for his supposed sentimentality, criticism that, as one commentator put it, made him cry all the way to the bank. The truth at the heart of Rolland’s observation is that something of the lushness of Massenet does indeed make itself felt in much French music, even in modernist composers beginning with Debussy and Ravel .
Despite the many captivating vocal passages in his works, the best known five minutes of Massenet’s music is undisputedly the famous Meditation from the opera Thaïs, a violin solo which appears as an intermezzo between scenes of the second act of the opera. To set the stage, Athanaël, a Cenobite monk, tries to persuade Thaïs, a voluptuous courtesan, to renounce her life of sin and find salvation through God. The Meditation, which incidentally is marked to be played Andante religioso, gives Thaïs time to chew on that idea, leading her to decide to change her life and follow Athanaël to the desert presumably to follow a religious vocation of rigorous self denial.
It is certainly true that far more people have heard the Meditation than have seen the opera, for this brief work has long been a part of every violinist’s solo repertoire. In fact, it is so well known as to have become one of those pieces that can be said to have become a victim of its own popularity. There was a time when every organ grinder on the streets of Paris played it ad nauseam and even today it is jocularly known to those in the violin trade who have heard and played it one time too many as the “Medication” from Thaïs.
Having said all that, the fact remains that the Meditation is one of those small glorious musical miracles which can move listeners of all sorts, from the least sophisticated to the most jaded, and which demonstrates superbly that the expressive powers of the violin rival those of the human voice.
After a brief introduction in the harps, the solo violin plays the beautifully shaped melody twice before the orchestra moves into a faster middle section. Here the music gradually becomes more intense until reaching a passionate climax. The main theme then returns, again played twice, and the music ends quietly as the violin’s high harmonics float above the orchestra.
Symphony No. 60, Il Distratto by Franz Josef Haydn (1732 -1809)
In 1774 Haydn wrote incidental music for a play that was performed at the Esterhazy court where he was the resident composer. The play in question was a five-act comedy called Le Distrait (The Distracted One) by the French playwright Jean François Regnard, but was performed in German translation as Der Zerstreute. The central character is Léandre, a man so absent-minded that he does such things as mistakenly enter another man’s coach, chew on his own finger instead of his lunch, and begin to dress his valet rather than himself. Worst of all, he nearly misses his own wedding, which is at the heart of the farcical plot that gives Haydn the opportunity to indulge fully his gift for musical humor and whimsy. The music, consisting of an overture and a number of entr’actes, proved to be such a great success that, under the waste-not-want-not principle that composers have embraced from time immemorial, Haydn recycled the music into a highly unusual symphony. Choosing the Italian form of the word Il Distratto for his title, Haydn gives us six movements instead of the usual four and presents an unprecedented number of comical and satirical touches .
The opening movement, which served as introduction to the play, begins with a brief introduction before launching into the main body of the movement, a vigorously charming work in triple time. In the second theme, Haydn introduces the first of his musical jokes, in which the orchestra seems to be stuck on one note and gradually grinds to a halt. A loud chord then brings them back to reality, forming a perfect musical illustration of an absent-minded person forgetting what he is doing while in the midst of doing it. In addition to this effect, which recurs several times, an inside joke for connoisseurs occurs in the development section with the quote of a descending arpeggio figure which is the main theme of Haydn’s well known Surprise Symphony, No. 45. The implication seems to be that the orchestra itself has become distracted and has launched into the wrong symphony.
The second movement opens with a graceful, lyrical melody in the strings which is rudely interrupted by a noisy fanfare-like passage in the winds. These two styles continue alternating with one another in a comical juxtaposition apparently representing several well-bred female characters as they deal with a rather pompous military man. In the middle of the movement Léandre seems to have strayed into a bar as we hear an authentic old French folk-song in a minor key called “In the pub I find wisdom and advice “.
The third movement begins as a conventionally courtly minuet but in the contrasting middle section seems to illustrate that Léandre has strayed again into a different part of town altogether. This section is based on another folk tune, this time one from the Balkans which produces a very exotic, Eastern European sound.
The frantic fourth movement brings us a succession of folk songs, again from East Europe, which, with their deliberately crude style illustrate madcap goings-on onstage and form a dramatic contrast to the fifth, which is marked Adagio di Lamentatione. Here a graceful melody heard over a throbbing accompaniment in a nearly Romantic style captures a spirit of lamentation, perhaps that of the bride Clarice who thinks she has been abandoned on her wedding day. The oboe intones a solemn melody from Gregorian chant, adding an ecclesiastical touch to the proceedings. Then the calm is rudely broken with a pompous fanfare, referring in the play to a fake courier who appears unexpectedly. The sublimely calm music then returns until one final ridiculous touch occurs at the very ending. Here the slow accompaniment figure which has dominated the movement suddenly doubles in speed, giving us the ludicrous case of a slow movement which ends fast.
The finale, which is marked prestissimo (“as fast as possible”) , gives us the broadest touch of comedy yet. After a few bars the orchestra stops dead in its tracks : the violins have forgotten to tune and now do so before relaunching into the jovialmusic. Such absent-mindedness among the musicians corresponds to the place in the play where Léandre wakes up in horror having forgotten his wedding and then ties a knot in his handkerchief as reminder. There is still time for one last joke: Haydn gives us a folk tune which he used in several other of works called The Night Watchman, here not so subtly suggesting that this entire farce has gone on too far into the night. The symphony soon returns to the business at hand, however, and ends with the highest possible spirits assuring us that the couple will certainly live happily ever after.