JANUARY PROGRAM NOTES
The four extraordinary Shakespeare sonnets that I have chosen to set are about the constancy of love, how death separates us from those we love, and how memory connects us with those we have lost.
Robert Sirota (b. 1949) studied composition at Juilliard, and received an undergraduate degree in piano and composition from Oberlin Conservatory. After studying in Europe, he earned a PhD in composition at Harvard. His teachers include Richard Hoffman, Joseph Wood, Earl Kim, Leon Kirchner and Nadia Boulanger. Dr. Sirota's catalogue includes solo, choral, orchestral and chamber works, four operas, and several musical theater works. His commissions include works for Empire Brass, American Guild of Organists, Seattle Symphony, Vermont Symphony, Fischer Duo, Peabody Trio, and the Israeli-based duo piano team of Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir. Dr. Sirota, who has had a long teaching career, is currently Director of the Peabody Institute, and he chairs the Fine Arts Advisory Committee for Baltimore Public Schools.
Sechs Bagatellen, Op. 9 by Anton Webern
Anton Webern's Six Bagatelles, Op. 9 are among the briefest and most condensed works of a composer renowned for the brevity and conciseness of his music. Brief as they are--each requires but a single page of score--the work represents, in fact, two separate works joined for publication. The earlier work, comprising the second through the fifth movements, was written as a string quartet in 1911; the outer movements were the outer movements of a three-movement quartet written in 1913. When first published, the Bagatelles seemed so extraordinary that Schoenberg was asked to write a preface to the score. It remains their best introduction: "Though the brevity of these pieces is a persuasive advocate for them, on the other hand that very brevity itself requires an advocate. Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. You can stretch every glance out in a poem, every sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a breath-such concentration can only be present in proportion to the absence of self-pity. These pieces will only be understood by those who share the faith that music can say things which can only be expressed by music. May this silence sound for them!"
Wayne Shirley and Dina Koston
Songs, Op. 23 and Op. 25 by Anton Webern
Though they are concise as is all Webern, the Drei Gesänge, Op. 23 are expansive when compared to their companion cycle, the Drei Lieder, Op. 25, Webern's only other twelve-tone work for voice and piano. Both cycles share one characteristic of all Webern's vocal work written after 1930: they are settings of texts by the poet Hildegard Jone. Jone and Webern were friends, and his letters to her are about the best source we have for his intentions in his later compositions which he described in moderate detail to the poet. The Drei Gesänge, Op. 23 were composed in the reverse of their current order. With only two songs finished Webern wrote to Jone, "Musically they combine to form a whole; in the sense that they constitute a certain antithesis." The first song, too, was made of two contrasting elements forming a whole. Webern explained, "In its musical form it is really a kind of aria". In speaking of the "aria" as a form, Webern was probably thinking of the classical concert aria which often contrasts a slow first section with a more flowing ending. In this song the two sections are in the same tempo but for part two there is a marked change in rhythm--from 2/2 to 3/4--and in texture. The second song is dramatic, both in its loud rapid opening and in its quiet suspended ending. The final song alternates slow and flowing tempi, and it has the kind of rapture characteristic of Webern's settings of sacred texts. The Drei Lieder, Op. 25 are quintessential Webern: brief, condensed, ecstatic utterances. Here the contrasts are opposite to the Op. 23: lively first song; quiet, lyrical second song; and highly dramatic third song. All of the songs in both sets have many rapid changes and internal contrasts, and their level of musical condensation achieves a remarkable intensity of expression.
String Quartet, Op. 28 by Anton Webern.
Anton Webern wrote Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge a letter which is a better explanation of his music than any commentator's words. Sent along with the manuscript of his String Quartet, Op. 28, which Mrs. Coolidge had commissioned, the letter runs, in part, in translation: "The content of the quartet is purely lyrical. Even its form grows from this. Therefore you will find in it not epic breadth but lyrical compression. I ask you to understand my music in this manner: especially the form, which is like that of many three-movement-or even two-movement-sonatas of Beethoven. It is from this lyric brevity rather than from great symphonic forms that my forms arise. I hope therefore that what I have to say will not appear to you be less than if it had been in a more extensive work: but merely differently-that is, lyrically-presented!" The opening movement is structurally a theme and variations. Webern admits in a letter to Erwin Stein that in fact the movement works more like a continuous whole than like a traditional theme-and-variations movement, and suggests that it be looked at as an "Adagio form"-that is, a sonata form without development. The two clearest landmarks for the new listener are the two spots where the players mute their instruments: the first is the start of the third variation (the "second theme" of Webern's "adagio form"), the second is the start of the final, coda-like variation. The second movement is a miniature scherzo-and-trio. The scherzo itself is a four-part canon in equal note-values which starts pizzicato and changes gradually to arco, like one of those Escher prints in which the fish change into birds. (It is repeated immediately, as is its non-literal recurrence after the trio, so the listener gets two chances to hear the transformation each time.) The final movement, Webern says in his letter to Stein, is formally a synthesis of scherzo and fugue. In fact, it is a flowing movement based on the interplay of brief lyrical motives: "scherzo" here is a form, not a feeling. The central section (the Webernian "fugue") contains moments of violence and moments of extreme calm: the opening material and mood, however, reassert themselves at the end.
Einige Sätze aud en Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs, Op. 37
György Kurtág was born in Romania in 1926, but in 1946 he moved to Budapest and soon became a naturalized Hungarian citizen. He studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music and graduated with diplomas in piano and chamber music in 1951 and composition in 1955. He subsequently studied in Paris, where his teachers included Marianne Stein, Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. He spent many years as a professor in Budapest at the Academy of Music, but has also taught in Berlin. The recipient of numerous awards and prizes, he was named Outstanding Artist by the Hungarian government and in 1994 he received the Austrian State Prize. Like Webern, György Kurtág is the other kind of minimalist: he concentrates an emotional experience into the smallest possible musical gesture.
String Quintet in G minor, K.V. 516 by W. A. Mozart
From the time of its publication the G minor string quintet has been considered to be one of the greatest of Mozart's chamber works: indeed it probably splits with the clarinet quintet a work as warm as the G minor is tragic the title of most-loved Mozart chamber-music work. Both tragedy and richness of design can be felt in the opening movement. The driven, chromatic first theme sets the tone for the work, but even more remarkable is the contrasting lyrical theme which comes in, in defiance of standard formal procedure, in the tonic key, and thus before the move to the contrasting key which is the structural means of keeping a Classical first movement going. The twistings of this noble theme to arrive at the goal of the new key, and the parallel turns in the recapitulation that only lead back in defeat to the original key, form one of the details that give this complex and wonderful movement its tragic tone. Certainly the resigned final appearance of this theme in the coda where the first violin dips down to the hollow sound of the open g string gives the ending its desolate cast. The terse, driven, G-minor minuet, with slashing off-beat accents, continues the mood of the first movement. The trio, by taking the cadential phrase of the minuet and transforming it into the major for its main theme, supplies a contrasting section of lyricism and repose. The slow movement, in E-flat major, requires mutes on the strings. The music moves from its hymn-like opening measures through a set of fragmented phrases to an ensemble reminiscent of Mozart opera ensembles. The moment when the first violin emerges in radiant B-flat major from a long section in B-flat minor is both particularly operatic and particularly lovely. The finale starts with a slow introduction in G minor, leading to a rondo in cheerful G major. The rondo is indeed cheerful, but its themes have a way of reminding us of the tragic themes of the first movement: only in the middle of the movement, arrived in C major, does Mozart let out with one of his sassiest, most devil-may-care tunes. Its shout of pure joy is almost a shock in the context of the quintet; yet here is where its elemental joy can best be understood.
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