Program Notes: Classics I – November 2022

By Steven Ledbetter



Danzón No. 2, for orchestra

Arturo Marquez was born in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico, on December 20, 1950. He composed his Danzón No. 2 in 1994. Francisco Savin conducted the first performance in Mexico City’s Netzahualcoyotl Hall on March 5, 1994. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, four percussionists, piano, and strings. Duration is about 10 minutes.

Arturo Marquez studied the violin, piano, and trombone in his teens, then piano and theory at the National Conservatory in Mexico from 1970 to 1975. After that he studied privately in Paris and completed a master’s degree at the California Institute of the Arts in 1990. His major teachers were Federico Ibarra and Morton Subotnick.

The majority of his early works were multi-media creations, uniting music with theater, dance, cinema, and photography, for which the music was often electro-acoustic combinations of an avant-garde character. 

In the early 1990s he stepped aside from the modernist track to play with popular dance styles in a series of seven compositions, for different instrumental combinations, under the generic title Danzón, which refers to a formal couple dance that grew out of 19th-century Cuban traditions of the contredanse and the habanera. By the 20th century, it began to interact with other Cuban dance types, and its popularity spread to Mexico as well. The couple undertaking the danzón performed an elaborate set footwork on syncopated beats, sometimes stopping completely in elegant frozen positions to listen to an instrumental section. Gradually the danzón was involved in the mambo and the cha cha cha.

The danzón continues to be danced in its traditional form by members of the older generation.

Arturo Marquez composed his first Danzón in 1992 for pre-recorded tape with optional saxophone. Soon the dancer Irene Martinez and the painter Andres Fonseca persuaded him to compose a Danzón for full orchestra. In preparation for the work, he traveled to Veracruz, where, in the port city saloons, the dance had first conquered Mexico; then he continued his research in the dance saloons of Mexico City.

The resulting lively dance composition, combining French, African, Cuban, and Mexican elements in a rondo pattern of tremendous vigor and color, is Marquez’s best-known work.



Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Opus 70 

Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves (Muhlhausen), Bohemia, near Prague, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. Dvorák began sketching the D-minor symphony on 13 December 1884; the final score was completed on March 17, 1885. The composer conducted the first performance in a concert of the London Philharmonic Society in St. James’s Hall on 22 April of that year. Dvorák made a cut in the slow movement during June before declaring the score definitive. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 35 minutes.

Five years elapsed between the composition of Dvořák’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, but they were years of increasing fame and busy composing in other genres, including the brilliant Scherzo capriccioso, the dramatic Hussite Overture, and the closely argued F-minor trio. His opera Dmitri (which, in terms of its plot, is a sequel to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov) had been performed in Prague, and the comic opera The Cunning Peasant in Hamburg. Most important for Dvořák’s international reputation, though, was the extraordinary popularity that he enjoyed in London after the successful performance there of his Stabat Mater in 1883. He himself conducted the Stabat Mater and other works, including his Sixth Symphony, during a London visit made in the spring of 1884 at the invitation of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Not long after his return home, Dvořák learned that the Philharmonic Society had elected him a member; at the same time, it commissioned a new symphony. 

Though the commission was tendered in June, Dvořák waited six months before starting to sketch, and even then the composition involved more than his usual amount of preliminary sketching and rewriting. The result, though, was a symphony that many writers consider to be his greatest single achievement, a work of powerful moods and wide-ranging feeling, a nationalistic symphony that offers more than quaint touristy views of peasant dancing—a stereotype of the nationalistic schools—that offers, indeed, the highest degree of musical seriousness and refinement. 

The symphony opens with a theme of deep Slavic foreboding, lyrical in character but built from motives that could serve as the germ for development. The first page of the final score contains a note in the composer’s hand that reveals, “The main theme occurred to me when the festival train from Pest arrived at the State station in 1884.” The theme certainly has little of the “festival” character, but the train in question (Dvořák was noted for his fondness for locomotives and his familiarity with their schedules) brought dozens of anti-Habsburg patriots to a National Theater Festival in Prague, so it is not unlikely that the Czech colorations in melody and harmony arose from his patriotic mood. Some of the transitional themes are related to ideas in the Hussite Overture, another recent patriotic score composed in memory of the 14th-century Czech religious reformer Jan Hus; these, too, no doubt arose from patriotic connections in Dvořák’s mind. These stern reflections usher in a rocking, sunny secondary theme that contrasts strikingly with the other material. The concentration of both development and recapitulation make this one of Dvořák’s densest symphonic movements in terms of sheer quantity of incident. 

The Poco adagio begins with a square-cut melodic phrase that comes to its ordained end after eight measures, raising visions of a possible theme-and-variations form with a series of starts and stops. But immediately after the statement of that theme, the musical thought opens out to become increasingly chromatic and expressive in a movement filled with wonderful touches of poignancy and colorful elaboration in the orchestral writing.   The Scherzo is written in 6/4 time, but from the beginning there is an exhilarating conflict between the two beats per measure of 6/4 (in the accompaniment) and the three beats per measure of 3/2 that the ear perceives in the melody. This is, in fact, a furiant, a characteristic Czech dance that plays with the various possible subdivisions of a six-beat pattern. Dvořák worked hard at the rhythmic lightness evident throughout this utterly delightful movement, spontaneous in effect yet actually the result of much sketching and rewriting to achieve that bubbling effervescence. 

In stark contrast, the Finale begins in a mood of tragedy–starting right from the intense opening phrase, the last three notes of which—are repeated to begin a slow, hymnlike march—with vivid themes developed to a majestic close that only turns definitively to the major in the last bars. 



Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra

Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro on March 5, 1887, and died there on November 17, 1959. He composed his Guitar Concerto in 1951. In addition to the solo guitar, the score calls for one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, and strings. Duration is about 22 minutes.

Brazilian-born Heitor Villa-Lobos was given cello lessons by his father, and he later attained mastery of the guitar. But as a composer he was almost entirely self-taught. As a young man intended for the medical profession, he preferred to spend his days in the bohemian life of the street musician, developing the ability to improvise guitar accompaniments to the capricious modulations of the popular instrumental music known as the chôros. Between ages eighteen and twenty-five, he traveled extensively throughout Brazil studying the various types of popular music and noting its characteristic features. At first his music was scorned in his own land for its novelty, but in the 1920s it was taken up enthusiastically in Paris, where Villa-Lobos attracted wide interest in many circles of the avant-garde. He made friends with many leading musicians (such as the pianist Artur Rubinstein) who not only became devoted admirers but promoted his music in performance. Throughout his long life he continued to pour forth an unending stream of new works, almost all of them marked by a freshness of melodic line (often marked by Brazilian popular styles), a rhythmic vitality, and imaginative instrumental color.  

Some of his most popular works attempted to combine Brazilian folk material with the contrapuntal style of J.S. Bach, and to these works Villa-Lobos gave a generic title that might be translated “Brazilian Bach-like Pieces” (Bachianas brasileiras); some of them are for full orchestra, others for as few as two instruments. One of the most popular movements in all of this section of the composer’s output is a miniature tone-poem depicting a train that runs through jungle and mountain, with evocative sound effects from the instruments.

The public response to his music varied widely throughout his life. Though he was regarded as too advanced for the public in his early Brazilian years, he nonetheless produced during that period four string quartets and five symphonies (of which the fifth is completely lost), as well as the delightful nationalistic piano pieces published as Prole do bebê (“The baby’s family”); these suggest the kind of fusion of folk traditions with modernism that Stravinsky was writing at exactly the same time—but Villa-Lobos had not yet encountered Stravinsky’s music, and came upon this approach independently.

The overt and exotic nationalism of the works that Villa-Lobos began to create in his Paris years attracted the greatest and most lasting attention. There are two great cycles of works—the Chôros of 1920-29 and the Bachianas Brasileiras that followed from 1930-1945. These explicitly call up the popular music of the Brazilian cities and the folk music of the countryside, gathered and recreated in concert works of astonishing variety. Some of the pieces in each cycle are for large ensembles (including, for example, chorus, band, and orchestra for Chôro No. 14 of 1928 and Bachianas Brasileiras Nos. 2, 3, 7, and 8), while others are for as varied a range in size and instrumentation as one can imagine (the much-loved Bachiana Brasileira No. 5 calls for eight cellos and soprano voice; No. 6 for solo flute and bassoon).

During the ‘30s, too, Villa-Lobos was playing an active and vital role in developing music education in his native country, and to this end he composed a great deal of choral music and other works designed for use in schools, just as Kodály did in Hungary and a few other composers have done in their native lands.

From 1945 until his death, Villa-Lobos became more interested in questions of instrumental virtuosity and produced concertos for piano (five of them), cello (two), harp, guitar, and harmonica. His piano compositions became longer and more consciously brilliant (though Rudepoema—approximately “rough poem”—for solo piano, written for Rubinstein in the 1920s, was already regarded as one of the most difficult works ever created for the instrument). He also continued, with considerable regularity throughout his life, composing string quartets (the final total was seventeen, with an eighteenth left in sketches at his death) and, after a break of a quarter century, he began to write symphonies again, composing his Sixth in 1944 and continuing to his Twelfth in 1957.

As if all this weren’t enough, he composed six ballets, film scores, a couple of operas, and even a Broadway show, Magdalena, with the team of Robert Wright and George Forrest, who were best known for converting the tunes of deceased older composers into show tunes for hits like Song of Norway (Grieg) and Kismet (Borodin). 

He composed the Guitar Concerto in 1951 for Andres Segovia, and, since he was himself a virtuoso performer on the instrument, it is a brilliant showpiece filled with evocations of Brazil. The work is cast in the traditional three movements, of which all three are constructed in sectional forms, with little attempt to suggest the classical concerto. The cadenza linking the last two movements was left for the soloist to improvise or choose, Villa-Lobos providing only a series of tempo indications. As an experienced showman, he ends the work with fiery virtuosity.



Estancia, selections from the ballet

Alberto Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 11, 1916, and died in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 25, 1983. He composed Estancia in 1941 for Lincoln Kerstein’s Ballet Caravan, which toured throughout South America with it. The score of the dance suite calls for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoon, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and seven percussionists, piano, and strings. Duration is about 13 minutes.

Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera showed precocious musical gifts and began to take piano lessons at the age of seven; by fourteen he was composing, though he eventually destroyed most of his juvenilia. He graduated with highest honors from the National Conservatory of Buenos Aires in 1938; even before graduation he attracted widespread attention with the ballet score Panambi (1936), following it up a few years later with Estancia (1941). Both works dealt with Argentine life and had a strong element of musical folklore enlivened by a brilliant ear for orchestral color and a strong sense of rhythm. 

World War II forced Ginastera to postpone accepting a Guggenheim grant to study in the United States, but by 1945, as a result of Péron’s rise to power, he was dismissed from his position at the national military academy. He spent the next several years in the United States, including a summer studying in Aaron Copland’s class at Tanglewood. Though he returned to Argentina and worked at reforming the musical life of his native country, he spent most of his last years abroad, in the United States and Europe, owing to continuing political unrest at home. By the late 1950s he had established an international reputation, and many of his later works were commissioned by organizations north of the Rio Grande (two of his three operas, for example, had their first performances in Washington).

In his later years, when he was widely recognized as the most important Argentine composer of the century, Ginastera composed in a more “international” style derived from the modernist traditions of the mid-century. But it was his early nationalistic ballets that first made his name and that have continued to be performed most frequently. Owing to the success of the precocious ballet score Panambi, Ginastera was selected by Lincoln Kirstein for a new ballet to be featured on the 1941 South American tour of the Ballet Caravan, with choreography by George Balanchine. The premiere immediately established the young composer as the pre-eminent musical interpreter of Argentine country life. 

The word “estancia” refers to a farm or cattle ranch on the vast grass-covered Argentine Pampas. Ginastera felt closely connected to this landscape and once wrote “Whenever I crossed the Pampas or lived in it for a time, my spirit felt inundated by changing impressions, now joyful, now melancholy, some filled with euphoria and others replete with profound tranquility.” 

The scenario of the ballet Estancia covers one day, from dawn to dusk, in the life of the ranch. There is a thread of plot about a country girl who despises the city slicker, but comes to admire him when he proves able to perform the rigorous work of the estancia. Ginastera’s music is filled with the rhythmic and melodic character of native popular song and dance. Estancia is best known as an orchestral suite made up of four dances (two of them will be performed here):  Wheat Dance, and the typical gaucho dance Malambo, reflecting the life of those who work the land and their celebration at day’s end. Much of the ballet generates its vigorous character from the simultaneous occurrence of 3/4 and 6/8 time, a motif that particularly dominates the macho finale Malambo, a dance performed only by men asserting their energetic virility.


© Steven Ledbetter