NEW PHIL                                                                                        May 21, 2023


By Steven Ledbetter



“Mother” and “Child,” orchestrated from Suite for Violin and Piano

The prolific composer William Grant Still was experienced in just about every aspect of music in American life, and his talents were such that he became a pathbreaker in all of them.  He was the first black composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra, the first to have an opera produced by a major opera company (Troubled Island, a treatment of the liberation of Haiti from French domination in the 1790s, performed by the New York City Opera in 1949), and the first to conduct a white radio studio orchestra.  He worked in both “popular” and “classical” styles. After studies at Wilberforce College (which he left without a degree) he worked for W. C. Handy. Later he enrolled at Oberlin Conservatory, where he was encouraged to compose. He played the oboe in theater orchestras (including that for Sissle and Blake’s landmark show Shuffle Along) and studied in New York with Varèse.  George Chadwick offered him a scholarship at the New England Conservatory and encouraged him to compose specifically American music. He worked privately with Chadwick while in Boston with Shuffle Along, but never enrolled at the Conservatory.

He was an arranger for Handy, Paul Whiteman, and Artie Shaw.  He conducted the CBS studio orchestra for the radio show “Deep River Hour” in New York, and he worked in Hollywood for films and television (including “Gunsmoke” and “Perry Mason”).  Still was a prolific composer in all musical forms, creating a total of five symphonies, nine operas, four ballets, and many other works.  His Afro-American Symphony was performed by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931; it marked a breakthrough for serious concert music by black composers.

In addition to his commercial and concert work, Still played a role in bringing the music of other cultures—the kind of thing now sometimes called “world music”—into the concert hall in formal settings. Sometimes he celebrated his African roots, but he also was partly Hispanic, and especially after settling in California he composed works that were based on the typical rhythms and melodies of the Spanish-speaking countries of the New World.

Among Still’s staunchest musical supporters were the violinist Louis Kaufman and his pianist wife Annette. In May 1943 he composed for them the Suite for Violin and Piano, finding inspiration for each of the three movements in a painting by a contemporary African-American artist. Ever practical, he produced alternative versions as well—a version of the complete suite for violin and orchestra, and a chamber orchestra version of the first and third movements (with the title Preludes) for string orchestra, flute, and piano, and the present version for string orchestra of the first and third movements. Louis Kaufman gave the first performance of the original Suite with pianist Vladimir Padwa in Jordan Hall, Boston, on March 14, 1944.

The first movement aims to capture the gestures of Richmond Barthé’s 1933 statue African Dancer with an assertive, driving figure in the main section and a bluesy middle section. The second movement does not appear in the string orchestra version, but it contributed its title, from a lithograph, Mother and Child, by Sargent Johnson, a Boston-born artist who spent most of his life in California. The final movement is filled with humorous vitality, depicting the best-known sculpture of Augusta Savage, Gamin, a 1930 bust of a street-smart young man.



Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. He planned a violin concerto as early as 1838, but it was not until 1844 that he settled down to serious work on it; the finished score is dated September 16, 1844. The first performance took place in Leipzig under Niels Gade’s direction, with Ferdinand David as the soloist. The concerto is scored for solo violin with an orchestra consisting of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets all in pairs, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 26 minutes.

Ferdinand David (1810‑1873) was one of the most distinguished German violinists and teachers of his day. When the twenty‑seven‑year‑old Mendelssohn became director of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig in 1836, he had David, just a year his junior, appointed to the position of concertmaster. The relationship between composer and violinist was marked in a letter from Mendelssohn to David on July 30, 1838: “I’d like to write a violin concerto for you next winter; one in E minor sticks in my head, the beginning of which will not leave me in peace.”

But having said as much, Mendelssohn was in no hurry to complete the work. He sketched and drafted portions of it in at least two distinct stages over a period of years, and his correspondence with David is sometimes filled with the violinist’s urgent plea that he finish the piece at last. Busy with many administrative activities, Mendelssohn wasn’t able to work seriously on the concerto until July 1844. By mid-September the concerto was finished.

David was his adviser on matters of technical detail regarding the solo part; he must have motivated the composer’s decision to avoid sheer virtuoso difficulty for its own sake. In fact, David claimed that it was these suggestions of his, which made the concerto so playable, that led to the work’s subsequent popularity. It is no accident that Mendelssohn’s concerto remains the first major Romantic violin concerto that most students learn.

At the same time it is, quite simply, one of the most original and attractive concertos ever written. The originality comes from the new ways Mendelssohn found to solve old formal problems. Ever since Antonio Vivaldi had set his seal on the Baroque concerto with over 500 examples, certain features had been passed on from one generation to another. First of all, the traditional concerto built its first movement on a formal pattern that alternated statements by the full orchestra (ritornellos) with sections featuring the soloist. This was effective when the ritornellos were short summaries of the main idea that functioned like the pillars of a bridge to anchor the soloist’s free flight. But as first movements took on the shape of a symphonic sonata form, the orchestral ritornello got longer and longer. Instead of waiting perhaps a minute or two to hear the soloist, the audience had to wait five minutes or more. Proportions seemed skewed.

In his last two piano concertos, Beethoven tried to change that somewhat by introducing the soloist and establishing his personality at the outset, and then proceeding with the normal full orchestral ritornello. Mendelssohn takes the much more radical step of dispensing with the tutti ritornello entirely, fusing the opening statement of orchestra and soloist into a single exposition. This was part of his design from the very beginning. Even the earliest sketch of the first movement shows the two measures of orchestral “curtain” before the soloist introduces the principal theme.


The other problem of concerto form that Mendelssohn attacked in a new way is that of the cadenza. Normally, just before the end of the movement, the orchestra pauses on a chord that is the traditional signal for the soloist to take off alone. Theoretically only two chords are necessary after this point for the movement to end (though in practice there is usually a somewhat longer coda). But everything comes to a standstill (as far as the composer’s work is concerned) while we admire the sheer virtuosity of the soloist, despite the fact that the cadenza might be outrageously out of style with the rest of the piece or that it may be so long and elaborate as to unbalance the composition to which it is attached.

The problem is not quite so serious when the composer himself provides the cadenza, because it is then at least in an appropriate style. But the absurdity of coming right up to the end of the movement and suddenly putting everything on hold is unchanged. Mendelssohn’s solution is logical and utterly unique. He writes his own cadenza for the first movement, but instead of making it an afterthought, he places it in the heart of the movement, allowing the soloist the chance (in the cadenza) to complete the development and inaugurate the recapitulation! Until that time no cadenza had ever played so central a role in the structure of a concerto.

Finally, Mendelssohn linked all the movements together without a break, a pattern that had been used earlier in such atypical works as Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, but never in a work having the temerity to call itself a concerto. Yet we can’t imagine the Liszt concertos and many others without this change.

The smooth discourse of the first movement, the way Mendelssohn picks up short motives from the principal theme to punctuate extensions, requires no highlighting. But it is worth pointing out one of the loveliest touches of orchestration at the arrival of the second theme, which is in the relative major key of G. Just before the new key is reached, the solo violin soars up to high C and then floats gently downward to its very lowest note, on the open G‑string, as the clarinets and flutes sing the tranquil new melody. Mendelssohn’s lovely touch here is to use the solo instrument—and a violin at that, which we usually consider a high voice—to supply the bass note, the sustained G, under the first phrase; it is an inversion of our normal expectations, and it works beautifully.

When the first movement comes to its vigorous conclusion, the first bassoon fails to cut off with the rest of the orchestra, but holds his note into what would normally be silence. The obvious intention here is to forestall intrusive applause after the first movement; Mendelssohn gradually came to believe that the various movements of a large work should be performed with as little pause as possible between them, and this was one way to do it (though it must be admitted that the sustained bassoon note has not always prevented overeager audiences from breaking into applause). A few measures of modulation lead naturally to C major and the lyrical second movement, the character of which darkens only with the appearance of trumpets and timpani, seconded by string tremolos, in the middle section. Once again at the end of the movement there is only the briefest possible break; then the soloist and orchestral strings play a brief transition that allows a return to the key of E (this time in the major mode) for the lively finale, one of those brilliantly light and fleet‑footed examples of “fairy music” that Mendelssohn made so uniquely his own.



Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Vyatka Province, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. He began his Fifth Symphony in May 1888 and completed it on August 26. Tchaikovsky himself conducted the premiere in St. Petersburg on November 26, 1888. The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, three timpani, and strings. Duration is about 50 minutes.

By 1888, when Tchaikovsky composed the Fifth Symphony, he was far from being the hypersensitive artist—virtually a neurotic cripple—of popular accounts. To be sure, ten years earlier he had gone through a major emotional crisis, brought on by his ill-advised, catastrophic marriage (undertaken partly in an attempt to “overcome” his homosexuality) and a series of artistic setbacks. But his own brother declared that he “seemed a new man” by 1885. The masterly achievement of the Fourth Symphony (premiered in 1878) had marked the end of the real crisis.

Tchaikovsky’s decision to write a symphony again after ten years was an overt expression of his willingness to tackle once more the largest and most demanding musical form. He began it in May 1888, completing the full score by mid-August. The premiere, which took place in St. Petersburg that November, was a success, though critics questioned whether the Fifth Symphony was of the same caliber as the Second and Fourth. Tchaikovsky himself ran hot and cold in his reactions to the new work. In March 1889 he went to Hamburg for the German premiere, where Brahms, visiting from Vienna, stayed over just to hear the first rehearsal. The two composers had lunch afterwards. Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother, “Neither he nor the players liked the Finale, which I also think rather horrible.” But later he wrote, “I have started to love it again.”

Certainly listeners have long loved the Fifth for its warmth, its color, its rich fund of melody. Tchaikovsky always wrote music with “heart,” music with an underlying emotional significance, though he was wary of revealing that meaning publicly, preferring to let the listener seek it personally.

The Fifth Symphony is dominated by a motto theme that might be identified with “the inscrutable predestination of Providence” mentioned in a memo of the composer’s. The motto recurs in each of the four movements. We first hear hushed and mysterious at the very beginning. The movement is expressive, but it is misleading to try to read too much beyond a certain emotional quality.

The second movement contains one of the most famous instrumental solos ever written, an ardent song for the horn, of great emotional intensity. The contrasting middle section builds to a feverish climax dramatically interrupted by the motto theme blared out by the full orchestra. The opening melody restores calm and seems to be dying away, when the motto theme bursts

in again, pounding all to silence and closing with only a few broken phrases, devoid of energy.

Few composers have written a full-scale waltz for the third movement and even fewer have managed one of such grace. At the end the waltz is undercut by a ghostly reminder of the motto theme in the clarinets and bassoons.

Brahms’s doubts regarding the finale no doubt had to do with what many have considered the least convincing gesture in the symphony: having just heard the motto in a threatening form at the end of the waltz movement, it opens the finale blazing firmly in the major. The victory seems too easily won, accomplished without even a pitched battle. Following the recapitulation, the rhythm of the motto builds to a massive climax and a grand pause. This sounds dangerously like the end of the piece, but there is more struggle to come. A presto section restates thematic materials from earlier in the finale, while the close of the coda is a new statement of that nervously syncopated little tune from the very beginning of the symphony, now ringing out with the most glorious assurance as a majestic trumpet fanfare in the major key—a triumph of sorts, if only by sheer assertion. Tchaikovsky puts on a bold front to conceal what might seem like whistling in the dark—but it is a brave whistle for all that.


© Steven Ledbetter