Prokofiev left Russia in the wake of the 1917 October Revolution, establishing himself in the West with concert tours around the United States and Europe. He lived briefly in New York and Germany, and then settled in Paris in 1923. In that epicenter of the musical avant-garde, Prokofiev made a splash with his colorful and spiky scores, especially his ballets.
In 1924, a choreographer and fellow Russian expatriate, Boris Romanov, commissioned a new ballet from Prokofiev for a touring troupe based in Germany. Romanov’s small company traveled with only a handful of musicians, so Prokofiev limited himself to a scoring of oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass. From the beginning, his plan was to create two parallel versions of the music: one a ballet score, the other a concert work. The ballet debuted in 1925 under the title “Trapeze,” and a truncated version of the music premiered in 1927 as the Quintet, Opus 39.
Working in Paris in the mid-1920s, Prokofiev felt pressure to keep up with the modernist drive toward ever increasing complexity in music. The Quintet incorporated some of his most pungent harmonies, and yet his knack for tuneful melodic lines and well-contoured phrases could not be repressed, even though it drew fire from contemporary tastemakers. The opening movement presents an orderly, angular theme, and then elaborates it through two linked variations. The bass takes a turn spelling out a thorny melody to begin the Andante energico second movement, but again the material finds its own form of lyricism.
The third movement is a pulsing, scherzo-like escapade. The fourth movement, marked Adagio pesante (“slow and heavy”), limits all melodic activity to evenly spaced eighth-notes, with support from faster viola arpeggios and irregular bass rhythms. Within the churning layers of the fifth movement, melodic echoes and breaks for pizzicato bass solos preserve the transparency. The Andantino that concludes the Quintet brings out more of the same: throbbing rhythms, fluid melodies and counter-lines, and a polished refinement that keeps this music easy on the ears, despite the liberal dashes of dissonance.
Aaron Grad ©2014
History has not been kind to Joachim Raff, who was a very popular composer in his day. After support in his journeyman years from Mendelssohn and Liszt, Raff established himself in the German spa town of Wiesbaden, where he taught music lessons and released new compositions at a rapid clip, including symphonies and salon pieces that enjoyed many performances around Europe. Raff’s abundance of music—a list of 216 published opuses created in a life of just 60 years—may have cost him in the end, earning him a reputation as a creator of trifles.
Raff was in truth a highly skilled composer and an original thinker, as demonstrated by the Sinfonietta from 1873. He coined the title (which had no prior record in musical parlance) as a way to indicate a symphony of smaller proportions, in this case a work for ten-piece wind band. Raff’s term caught on in the twentieth century, with notable examples from Prokofiev, Britten, and Poulenc.
Raff’s scoring for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns recalls the earlier tradition of Harmoniemusik, a genre of music for wind ensemble. In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, the most posh aristocrats were likely to maintain a wind band, or Harmonie, to entertain at outdoor parties, hunts and other festivities. (Mozart wrote several of his Serenades for such groups.) Raff’s Sinfonietta, in line with this history, is light and breezy in tone, yet its structures still fulfill symphonic norms, starting with a sturdy Allegro. The Allegro molto second movement, propelled by a galloping gait, serves as the work’s scherzo. The Larghetto luxuriates in two main themes, with the oboe introducing the particularly lovely secondary melody amid the soft chatter of the flutes. The Vivace finale uses bouncing staccato articulations and fluid slurs to close this trailblazing Sinfonietta on a colorful note.
Aaron Grad ©2014
As a young man, Dvořák’s musical career involved him in all manner of music-making in Prague: He accompanied church services from the organ, played viola in a dance band and in the local opera orchestra, taught piano lessons, and kept up his composing on the side. He might have spent the rest of his life as a cash-strapped freelance musician had it not been for the intervention of a most influential champion, Johannes Brahms, who set Dvořák up with his publisher.
Dvořák composed the Serenade for Winds in 1878, the same year his Slavonic Dances became his first international hit. As in his previous Serenade for Strings from 1875, the title referenced those light-hearted works from Mozart’s time that functioned as entertainment at evening gatherings.
Dvořák’s Serenade opens with march-like music, a fitting tribute to the outdoor origins of the wind ensemble, which traditionally entered and exited a performance playing a march. The minuet that follows is full of playful echoes and melodic counter-lines, making the most of a quick descending motive in the outer sections and an even quicker shaking gesture in the contrasting trio section.
The third movement, marked Andante con moto (At a walking pace, with motion), rolls out beautiful, patient melodies over a lively accompaniment. Operating in the middle ground for most of the movement, the three horns almost steal the show with their infectious offbeats and regal commentaries. The finale features the most overtly “Slavonic” music of the Serenade, showing off Dvořák’s calling card in the early stages of his international career. A momentary return to the opening march music rounds out the form of the Serenade and clears the way for a joyous culmination in D major.
Aaron Grad ©2016
About This Program
When Prokofiev wrote this program’s opening quintet, he was working in Paris for a ballet company with limited musicians; oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass were the only instruments available. In addition to completing a ballet score for these instruments, Prokofiev used this uncommon orchestration for his raucous and charming Quintet. Following Prokofiev’s work, the alluring sonorities of the SPCO wind section take center stage in works by Raff and Dvořák. Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds closes the program, showcasing the SPCO winds at their best, full of mirth one moment and mystery the next.