Music for Families: Stringing it All Together

Stringing It All Together
The Elements of Music Making

Do you ever wonder how a piece of music was created? How does a composer string together so many different notes and instruments to create something that sounds amazing? The final piece might sound complicated, but the building blocks of music are very basic: pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, and dynamics. In this concert the San Francisco Symphony, conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, and soprano Ann Moss take apart great works of music and put them back together. 

Wagner: Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin
R. Strauss: Sunrise, from Also sprach Zarathustra
Mahler: Third Movement from Symphony No. 1 in D major
Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor
Gershwin: “I Got Rhythm,” from Girl Crazy
Gershwin: “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess
Tchaikovsky: Opening to Act II from Swan Lake, Opus 20
Prokofiev: March from The Love for Three Oranges
Shostakovich: Allegro from Chamber Symphony, Opus 110a
Beethoven: Finale from Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67
 

Wagner: Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin
LISTEN FOR: An upward-rushing brass motif sets the stage for a wedding celebration

Richard Wagner (1813-83) was among the most influential composers in the history of Western music. He singlehandedly changed opera, fusing drama and music and spectacle, and he expanded the orchestra’s language, harnessing it and drawing from it sounds never before conceived, from glorious to grotesque. Composers long after him had to come to terms with the new musical worlds he created. Wagner completed his opera Lohengrin in 1848. It tells the story of the medieval knight Lohengrin, who champions Elsa of Brabant, unjustly accused of murdering her brother, heir to the throne. A swan, a power-crazed knight and his evil wife, the noble Lohengrin, and magic spells all play into the story, which would take longer to tell than the Prelude to Act III takes to perform.

The Prelude is wild music, a showpiece for orchestra heralding Lohengrin and Elsa’s wedding. At the outset the two principal themes are stated (twice each) by full orchestra. A return to the opening music is short-circuited to bring in a less extravagant middle section, which emphasizes the woodwinds before finding its way back to the joyous beginning.

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R. Strauss: Sunrise, from Also sprach Zarathustra
PICTURE THIS: The rising of the sun and the power of the new day’s light

Back in 1968, when audiences watched Stanley Kubrick’s blockbuster film 2001: A Space Odyssey, they weren’t much concerned with the distant future of a coming century. In fact, the film opened with music that had been composed in the previous century, the Sunrise from the 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss (1864-1949). That title translates to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which in turn is the title of a book by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Strauss’s music is a loose “interpretation” of Nietzsche’s book, which supposedly recounts the musings of Zarathustra, the sixth-century (B.C.E.) Persian religious teacher also known as Zoroaster. Nietzsche opens with a prologue in which Zarathustra, who has spent ten years as a recluse in the mountains, watches the sun rise and announces his decision to re-enter society. This is the scene Strauss depicts. Knowing what is supposed to be happening, however, is hardly essential to experiencing the thrill of these two minutes of music.

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Mahler: Third Movement (Solemn and Measured, without Dragging) from Symphony No. 1 in D major
LISTEN FOR: Mahler creates a mysterious mood by having the low sounding instruments of the orchestra play a somber version of the familiar tune “Frère Jacques.”

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), known during his lifetime more as a conductor than as a composer, came to be recognized in the last half of the twentieth century as an artist who captured the modern psyche in his nine completed symphonies. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, given its world premiere in 1889 and revised several times in the years that followed, is one of the great “firsts” in the repertory, opening in forest murmurs and concluding in a blaze of heroism. In between comes music inspired by village bands and klezmer, and even (as we hear this afternoon) a mysterious transformation of the children’s song “Frère Jacques.”

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Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor
DID YOU KNOW?: Vienna (Brahms’s adopted hometown) and Budapest (capital of modern Hungary) are only about 150 miles apart but their native folk music is very different!

Johannes Brahms (1833-97) loved folk tunes. From his early years he was a fan of Gypsy music—and, as the composer Béla Bartók pointed out, Gypsy music is what Brahms’s Hungarian Dances really are. Brahms composed twenty-one such dances, setting them for two pianos. Many of these dances were later orchestrated, and it is in their orchestral guise that we most commonly hear them. If this music has an authentic folk-like sound, it is because there is some question about how much in his Hungarian Dances is Brahms’s own and how much is original Gypsy material. One charming feature of this music is that it speeds up and slows down from time to time, often when you least expect it.

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Gershwin: “I Got Rhythm,” from Girl Crazy
“Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess
LISTEN FOR: A snappy off-the-beat melody (“I Got Rhythm”)
PICTURE THIS: The lazy heat of the South Carolina summer (“Summertime”)

George Gershwin (1898-1937) straddled the worlds of popular song, Broadway, and the concert hall more successfully than any composer before his time or since.  No one else mixed urban savvy and sentiment like Gershwin, and no one expressed better the inner life of a rapidly urbanizing America, so full of strivers and self-improvers just like himself. The 1930 show Girl Crazy is loaded with some of Gershwin’s best material. Ethel Merman made her Broadway debut in this show and, as she said years later, made the audience “a little crazy” with her rendition of “I Got Rhythm.”

By the mid-1930s, having struck gold with a string of hit Broadway shows (with lyrics by his witty brother Ira), Gershwin was ready to experiment with big forms, notably opera. Gershwin called Porgy and Bess a folk opera. It is a story of good and evil, love and obsession, despair and hope, and its stage is populated by a host of characters as vivid as any in opera. In addition to its ambitious mix of musical styles, Porgy and Bess was notable in that it was written for a cast of predominantly African-American opera singers. The music of Porgy and Bess seems as old as this country, and today it takes an effort to recall that the great songs Gershwin created for this masterpiece, such as the unforgettable “Summertime,” were not always part of our artistic landscape.

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Tchaikovsky: Opening to Act II from Swan Lake, Opus 20
LISTEN FOR: A wistful and memorable oboe melody, later taken on by surging strings and brass

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s first ballet began with a modest commission for a score on the subject of Swan Lake. Some years before, he had composed a miniature dance setting of the fairy tale as an amusement for his young nieces; now he accepted the invitation “because I could do with the money, but also because I wanted for a long time to try my hand at this kind of music.” The work that emerged was to establish Tchaikovsky (1840-93) as one of the unchallenged masters of the form and provide a seminal influence on modern ballet. With the ballets that followed—The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker—a dance trilogy of such elegant impact was created that many music lovers today honor Tchaikovsky not primarily as a symphonist, but as a genius of theatrical music. In his music for Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky produced a score of symphonic proportions, reasserted the dignity of ballet music, and, for the first time since the days of its classical masters, established music’s rights to equal partnership with the dance.

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Prokofiev: March from The Love for Three Oranges
DID YOU KNOW?: Prokofiev made his first trip to the US in 1918. His entrance to America was through San Francisco (via a ship from Tokyo) and his first view of this continent was of the still unbridged Golden Gate

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) composed his opera The Love for Three Oranges in 1919, and the work was premiered in 1921 in Chicago. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the composer had fled his native land in 1918. He would not return to live there again until 1936. The Love for Three Oranges follows a complicated, borderline absurdist plot. A depressed prince cheers up over the misfortune of the sorceress Fata Morgana. To get revenge, Fata Morgana causes the prince to fall in love with three oranges in a witch’s kitchen, where they are guarded by a gigantic cook armed with a ladle. The oranges grow to enormous size and are cut open to reveal that they each contain a fairy princess. After many misadventures, the prince and the third princess are united as a couple.

The March is one of the most familiar items in Prokofiev’s catalogue. Swaggering and grotesque, it runs as a recurrent theme through The Love for Three Oranges.

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Shostakovich: Allegro from Chamber Symphony, Opus 110a (arranged for String Orchestra by Lucas Drew from Quartet No. 8 for Strings)
DID YOU KNOW?: Shostakovich often used a musical spelling of his initials D–S–C–H (otherwise known as the notes D–E-flat–C–B) in his works, including the String Quartet No. 8

The biography of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) is among the most fascinating of any artist’s. He managed to function in a strict society demanding of its artists, enriching the repertory with music that speaks of the intersection between the life of the individual and history. It would be hard to think of another composer whose work is so intensely affected by life—his own, and of the world in and for which he wrote. Today, he is widely viewed as the greatest of the Soviet composers, thanks to the originality, breadth of conception, and profound personal imprint his works display. At the core of the composer’s work are his fifteen symphonies and string quartets. The symphonies tend toward public expressions of propaganda or protest, while the quartets delve into the private recesses of his imagination. The Eighth Quartet is an anguished outcry, and its effect is so extraordinary that many enthusiasts consider it the high point of his chamber music. The second-movement Allegro molto breaks forth with a brilliant opening and proceeds to a leering dance of death that grows ever more terrifying as one of its fragmented phrases repeats incessantly, unable to move forward. Numerous musicians have picked up on the "symphonic" character of the score, and within several years of its premiere a half-dozen orchestral arrangements of the piece appeared. The title "Chamber Symphony" was first attached to an arrangement of the quartet by conductor and violist Rudolph Barsai. In this concert we hear an arrangement by Lucas Drew.

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Beethoven: Finale from Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67
LISTEN FOR: Trombones, piccolo, and contrabassoon—used for the first time in any symphony

The nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) outlined new horizons of drama and serious content that inspired (and intimidated) composers who followed him throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. If any work of concert music can claim to be the world’s best-known, it is probably Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, first heard in 1808. The opening movement careens ahead at full speed, subsiding into a more reflective mood for just a moment. Some music can be compared to forces of nature. This music is a force of nature. But that opening is only where the excitement starts. This afternoon we hear a part of the work that is perhaps less well known but which accounts for a large portion of this symphony’s thrills. Just as painters use contrasts of light and dark to emphasize the qualities of each—a bolt of lightning is brighter against black clouds—Beethoven pulls one of music’s greatest moments from a murky fog of sound, vanquishing the haze with the musical equivalent of a lightstorm. 

(November 2017)