Behind the Scenes: Deep Music Program Notes

PROGRAM NOTES BY DANIEL CHETEL

American composer Libby Larsen was born in 1950 in Wilmington, Delaware but moved to Minnesota, where she earned three degrees from the University of Minnesota, co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum (now the American Composers Forum), and served as composer-in-residence of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Larsen’s music is often deeply rooted in a sense of place whether that place is global, as in her 1992 choral- orchestral Missa Gaia: Mass for the Earth, or whether that place is more particular, as in her 1983 Deep Summer Music.

Tonight, Deep Summer Music centers our musical imaginations on the panorama of colorful richness that pervades the horizon at harvest time in the western plains. Larsen writes in her note about this work: “In the deep summer, winds create wave after wave of harvest ripeness which, when beheld by the human eye, creates a kind of emotional peace and awe.”
While not necessarily referenced musically, it is difficult not to hear a poetic allusion to the naturalistic patriotism of Katharine Bates’s line “amber waves of grain,” set to music in the song we now know as America, the Beautiful. Larsen’s music is pulsating and atmospheric, drawing on minimalist American traditions combined with an evocative pictorial sweep. The texture of the music is characterized by the percussion and strings that construct this undulating foundation, but it is the poignant solo trumpet that seems to be an avatar for us as the listener, considering the vastness of this abundant vista.

Alberto Ginastera—born in 1916 in Buenos Aires, Argentina—was also a composer of geographically and culturally specific music that often highlighted his own Argentinian musical heritage. This is heard most famously in his 1941 score to the ballet Estancia which depicted the lives of cowboys from his home country and featured specific Argentinian dance forms, including the energetic malambo. Ginastera continually engaged with the question of how to use this Latin American tradition within the context of an increasingly modern musical language that he was developing through his travels and studies in the United States and Europe.

The Harp Concerto, Op. 25 was premiered in 1965. In this virtuosic concerto we can hear a modern and experimental musical language at play (including extensive use of wispy string harmonics, crunchy dissonances of harmony, and even some nontraditional sounds made by the harpist), but the overall character is deeply rooted in the rhythmic and percussive traditions that we associate with Ginastera’s earlier music. The concerto was commissioned by Edna Phillips, the harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered under the baton of Eugene Ormandy with Spanish superstar harpist Nicanor Zabaleta performing the solo.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s musical career is also generally divided into three periods, with taxonomic proposals made by critics almost immediately after the composer’s death in 1827. While the details can always be disputed, Beethoven’s middle—sometimes known as “heroic”—period conventionally begins with his Symphony No. 3 in E- at Major, Op. 55, aptly subtitled Eroica, and premiered in 1805. This style of heroicism lends itself nicely to the Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 as well, which was conceived and originally presented as an explicitly patriotic work. Beethoven conducted the premiere in Vienna in December 1813 on an evening of music presented to raise funds for injured soldiers, and the symphony was paired with the now somewhat infamous Wellington’s Victory, a work mostly forgotten to history that included extensive brass fanfares and a military percussion battery.

The Symphony No. 7 also includes musical homages to military tropes and imagery within the structure of a classical symphonic form. Late nineteenth- century German Romantic composer Richard Wagner referred to this work as an “apotheosis of dance,” referencing the insistent rhythmic patterns underlying the ebullient outer movements. Of course, the Presto third movement is itself a rollicking scherzo in triple meter and even the foreboding Allegretto second movement has a certain dactylic pattern to it with its long- short-short ostinato that suggests a stoic funeral procession. Unlike Larsen’s atmospheric invocation of the American plains, Beethoven’s patriotic message is somewhat less subtle, highlighted by the heroic French horns and gleaming strings.

When we explore the history of orchestral music Beethoven’s nine symphonies represent an interesting paradox: they are both the very definition of what a symphony is and at the same time these nine works written across twenty- five years exploded the conventions of the form and are each experimentally unique in their own right.

The opening Poco sostenuto, unlike simpler introductions that we might expect from classical examples (or even earlier Beethoven symphonies), travels through a wide array of emotional states rather than simply functioning as a formal setting of the stage. Again, seemingly dispensing with the customs of traditional forms, this introduction cheekily elides into the main body of the movement, a glorious ride through the forest, complete with the clip-clop dotted rhythm of galloping horses. The second movement Allegretto is one of Beethoven’s most well known symphonic movements. He mesmerizes the listener with the apparent simplicity of its relatively static figures, but the subtly moving bass line eventually leads to a fugal treatment of the theme that contributes to the Baroque, historical atmosphere. Beethoven propels his quick-moving Scherzo into motion with notable interplay between triple and duple meters that create an off-kilter hemiola effect. The middle Trio section returns to the pastoral ambience of the opening movement with spacious harmonies in the woodwinds and brass that conjure images of the forests surrounding courtly Viennese estates. The sparkling passagework of the Allegro con brio sets off into a joyful finale with a return to the lilting dotted rhythms of the very opening. The composer’s exuberance leads to some of Beethoven’s most extreme musical direction—multiple fortossissimo markings—in the coda which propel the orchestra tospring its way towards the end of this dynamic symphony.

 
Lexington Philharmonic