Dawn Upshaw Sings Ravel
- May 30
- June 1
- May 31
Written in 1761, the Symphony No. 6 in D Major is the first part of a triptych whose individual pieces are titled “Le matin,” “Le midi,” and “Le soir” (“Morning,” “Noon,” and “Evening”). Although the titles suggest a programmatic concept, most of the music remains essentially abstract.
Still, “Morning” opens with one of the earliest examples of pictorial music in a Classical-period symphony. The slow introduction to the initial movement presents a musical depiction of dawn. As such, it stands as a forerunner of the less stylized, more magnificent sunrise Haydn would portray in his oratorio The Creation nearly 40 years later.
As striking as the “dawn” passage is, it is less important to the work as a whole than the extended solo passages, reminiscent of the Baroque concerto grosso, which Haydn weaves throughout the musical fabric. The Allegro that forms the main body of the first movement features a prominent role for the flute, and a conspicuous horn call signals the recapitulation.
The use of solo instruments becomes even more pronounced in the second movement. Here Haydn presents an affectionate parody of a music lesson. The concertmaster, with assistance from the principal cellist, demonstrates the nimble performance of scales, trills, and arpeggios to the rest of the strings, who emulate the leader as best they can. (This, too, foreshadows a work from Haydn’s maturity: The finale from the Sinfonia concertante in B-flat, composed during his first London sojourn, also depicts a music lesson.) The movement is framed by a prelude and epilogue in slow tempo. The latter passage, with its poignant suspensions over a “walking” bass line, achieves a sweetness recalling certain Baroque-period composers — Arcangelo Corelli, for example — who favored this device.
The third movement’s minuet again features the flute, while its central section, or “trio,” offers a remarkable duet for solo bassoon and bass. All the featured instruments are heard once more in the finale, an Allegro that closes this musical “morning” in high spirits.
Paul Schiavo ©
In 1925, the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned a new work from Maurice Ravel, the leading French composer of the day. Coolidge specified the genre (song cycle) and instrumentation (female voice with flute, cello and piano), and left the choice of text to Ravel, who selected poems from an eighteenth-century volume he had recently read. The resulting piece, Chansons madécasses, is one of a legendary list of compositions Coolidge initiated, including Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5, Stravinsky’s Apollo, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring.
Ravel culled the texts from a 1787 collection by Evariste Désiré de Forges Parny, who was most famous for an earlier book of erotic poems. Parny had claimed that his Madagascar Songs were actual folk verses from the African island, but more likely the poems were entirely of his own invention, at most influenced by his proximity to Madagascar when he worked for France’s colonial army in India. The texts are unabashedly lustful (“Your caresses burn all my senses / Stop or I will die!”) and political (“Do not trust the white men!”), surprising choices for the generally asexual and cool-headed composer. Ravel must have responded to the exotic nature of the material, part of the same fascination he exploited in Shéhérazade, Tzigane (Gypsy), and even the Blues movement of his Violin Sonata.
The opening song, “Nahandove,” uses the bare texture of cello and voice to capture the longing at the beginning and end of the poem. Ravel's text setting obsesses over the name “Nahandove,” amplifying the intense passion and romance of the raciest lines of the text. “Aoua!” does not shy away from the brutal intensity of the opening shout or the darkness of colonial oppression, building thick textures and crunching dissonances. The final song, “Il est doux,” captures the sweet indolence of a summer day, with girls singing and birds in the rice field. The text again veers toward the erotic, and Ravel matches it with slow and sensuous dance music. The singer breaks the spell with a nonchalant final line: “Go and prepare the meal.”
Aaron Grad ©
Night of the Four Moons, commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Players, was composed during the Apollo 11 flight [July 1969]. The work is scored for alto (or mezzo-soprano), alto flute (doubling piccolo), banjo, electric cello, and percussion. The percussion includes Tibetan prayer stones, Japanese Kabuki blocks, alto African thumb piano (mbira), and Chinese temple gong in addition to the more usual vibraphone, crotales, tambourine, bongo drums, suspended cymbal and tamtam. The singer is also required to play finger cymbals, castanets, glockenspiel and tamtam.
I suppose that Night of the Four Moons is really an "occasional" work, since its inception was an artistic response to an external event. The texts—extracts—drawn from the poems of Federico García Lorca—symbolize my own rather ambivalent feelings vis-à-vis Apollo 11. The texts of the third and fourth songs seemed strikingly prophetic!
The first three songs, with their brief texts, are, in a sense, merely introductory to the dramatically sustained final song. The moon is dead, dead ... is primarily an instrumental piece in a primitive rhythmical style, with the Spanish words stated almost parenthetically by the singer. The conclusion of the text is whispered by the flutist over the mouthpiece of his instrument. When the moon rises ... (marked in the score: "languidly, with a sense of loneliness") contains delicate passages for the prayer stones and the banjo (played "in bottleneck style", i.e., with a glass rod). The vocal phrases are quoted literally from my earlier (1963) Night Music I (which contains a complete setting of this poem). Another obscure Adam dreams ... ("hesitantly, with a sense of mystery") is a fabric of fragile instrumental timbre, with the text set like an incantation.
The concluding poem (inspired by an ancient Gypsy legend)—Run away moon, moon, moon!— provides the climactic moment of the cycle. The opening stanza of the poem requires the singer to differentiate between the "shrill, metallic" voice of the Child and the "coquettish, sensual" voice of the Moon. At a point marked by a sustained cello harmonic and theclattering of Kabui blocks (Drumming the plain,/the horseman was coming near…), the performers (excepting the cellist) slowly walk off stage while singing or playing their “farewell” phrases. As they exit, they strike an antique cymbal, which reverberates in unison with the cello harmonic. The epiloque of the song (Through the sky goes the moon / holding a child by the hand) was conceived as a simultaneity of two musics: "Musica Mundana" ("Music of the Spheres"), played by the onstage cellist, and "Musica Humana" ("Music of Mankind"), performed offstage by singer, alto flute, banjo, and vibraphone. The offstage music (“Berceuse, in stile Mahleriano”) is to emerge and fade like a distant radio signal. The F-sharp major tonality of the “Musica Humana” and the theatrical gesture of the preceding processionals recall the concluding pages of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony.
George Crumb ©
In the mid-1780s, Mozart wrote two symphonies for specific cities: Linz (No. 36) and Prague (No. 38). The Prague Symphony was completed at leisure in Vienna and then taken to Prague for a performance, but Mozart was caught on the hop in Linz. In late October 1783, he was on his way home from a rather trying three-month visit to Salzburg during which his wife and father met for the first time as in-laws. Living under the same roof, they clearly loathed each other. So it must have been with some relief that Mozart headed home for Vienna. En route he stopped at Linz, where he had many friends, as he wrote to his father:
When we reached the gates of Linz . . . we found a servant waiting there to drive us to Count Thun’s, at whose house we are now staying. I really cannot tell you what kindnesses the family showers on us. On Tuesday, November 4, I am to give a concert in the theater here and, as I have not a single symphony with me, I am writing a new one at break-neck speed, which must be finished by that time. Well, I must close, because I really must set to work.
The letter was written on October 31, so Mozart was not only giving a concert on five days notice, but was also expected to offer up a brand new symphony. Maddeningly, this letter is the last piece of contemporary evidence that survives about the premiere. All we know is that the concert took place, the symphony exists, and Mozart must have been quite happy with it. He thought it fine enough to present in Vienna in April 1784, when he billed it (with admirable honesty) as “a quite new grand symphony.”
Who knows what drove him over those five days, but he produced his finest and grandest symphony to date. Many commentators have detected the strong influence of Joseph Haydn in the slow introductory passage. This was the first time Mozart tried opening a symphony this way, and his innate sense of theater ensures that he carries it off with aplomb. Trumpets and drums add brilliance, not solely in the outer, fast movements, but also in the slow movement. This original stroke was probably purely a result of circumstance. The orchestra in Linz had trumpets but no flutes, so Mozart worked with what he had. All in all, there is no more impressive example than this of Mozart’s fabulous facility for writing first-class music at high speed.
Svend-Einar Brown ©