Program Notes

In addition to the pre-concert lectures, SCMS audiences enjoy pithy program notes by Kenneth Slowik. Those for a recent Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra concert may serve as representative:

Program Notes

In the shadow of Schönberg’s Verein

In the immediate aftermath of World War I, the Federal Republic of Austria was founded, acknowledging the end of the centuries-old empire which had preceded it. At the same time (November 1918), Arnold Schönberg established his brilliant but short-lived Society for Private Musical Performances (Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen), dedicated to performing contemporary music at the highest possible level. Schönberg’s organization, which presented concerts for three seasons only, was based on principals cogently outlined in a prospectus for new subscribers:

This Society (Verein) has this purpose: to give artists and friends of art a real and precise knowledge of modern music. In the selection of works for performance, no specific style is preferred. From Mahler and (Richard) Strauss to the very youngest, the total spectrum of modern music is to be represented. In addition to songs, piano pieces, and chamber music, choral and orchestral works will be considered for performance. These last, while the Society does not presently have the means to perform them in their original cast, can, for the time being, be reproduced only as arrangements for chamber orchestra (string quintet, piano, harmonium, flute, clarinet, etc.) or in specially adapted arrangements for piano four-to-eight hands.

The preparation of works occurs with a level of care and thoroughness not to be found in today’s concert life where, in general, one has to make the best of an a priori fixed and always insufficient number of rehearsals. Contrary to this, in the Society the number of rehearsals is always determined by the goal of achieving utmost clarity and fulfillment. As far as the composer’s intentions are concerned, unless the ground rules of a good performance are fulfilled, namely clarity and precision, the works cannot and must not be performed in the Society. The performance of works studied in this manner occurs in the weekly “Evenings” of the Society, which are the equivalent of formal concerts, but are removed from the corrupting influence of publicity. These performances are not “public” in every respect. Guests are excluded (with the exception of those living abroad). Reviews of the performances in newspapers as well as all publicity of the works or the artists is inadmissable. At the performances, expressions of approval, of displeasure, and of gratitude are not permitted. The only success that the composer can have is the one that ought to be the most important for him: that he can make himself understood.”

Subscribers to the Verein were not told in advance what pieces would be played on any particular evening: what was deemed sufficiently well-rehearsed would be presented. In an age when virtually no recordings of contemporary music were available, the Verein found it important to program works (once adequately prepared) on several different evenings, in order that the audience members would have the chance to experience them repeatedly. In the course of the one hundred thirteen concerts given by the Verein between 29 December 1918 and 5 December 1921, one hundred fifty-four works were performed, of which fully two-thirds were presented more than once. The vast majority of these pieces—by composers including Reger, Debussy, Schönberg himself, Bartok, Ravel, Stravinsky, Mahler, Scriabin, Webern, Berg, Busoni, and Richard —were either originally scored for solo piano, piano plus voice or one other instrument, or small ensemble, or were played in reductions for one or two pianos. Only a small group of works, including Mahler’s Wayfarer Songs and Fourth Symphony, were heard in chamber orchestra guise. Others, including Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, were arranged for performance at Verein concerts which, due to the insolvency and dissolution of the organization, never materialized. Schönberg made a brief sketch of the procedure to be followed in making the arrangements, in which many of the wind and most of the brass parts were taken by the piano or the harmonium, that foot-powered reed organ whose slightly wheezy voice can be heard clearly from time to time when it is not hiding in camouflage as an extension of the woodwind group. He himself arranged the Wayfarer Songs for performance on 6 February 1920, interestingly choosing (despite the availability of the Verein’s usual baritone) to follow Mahler’s alternate vocal scoring and employ a female singer, Stella Eisner, to interpret the cycle’s “masculine” texts. Following his directive, several of his students made similar arrangements. In the most successful of these, the sound is in many ways peculiarly “symphonic” in texture, and can momentarily even make the listener forget that he’s hearing an arrangement—surely a complement to the transcriber’s art.

The transcription of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was prepared in October of 1920. The arrangement was at one time attributed to Schönberg himself, and more recently to Hanns Eisler. The current attribution to Benno Sachs, yet another member of the circle of Schönberg’s students, in no way diminishes its effectiveness, despite the fact that the piano must do service not only for the harp (which it commonly replaces in the Verein arrangements), but also for the distinctive sound of the horn.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the life of Gustav Mahler (who is shown on the cover of tonight’s program in a 1902 charcoal drawing by Emil Orlik) was the death of his elder daughter Maria, not yet five, who succumbed in the summer of 1907 to a combination of scarlet fever and diphtheria. Ironically, he had, in 1901 and 1904, set five poems out of some 425 Friedrich Rückert had written in response to the similar deaths of two of his own children in 1833-34. Mahler’s settings of these Kinder-Totenlieder, or “Songs on the Death of Children,” form an inter-connected cycle very much in the mold of those of Schubert, Schumann, or Brahms. I challenged myself to arrange these devastating pieces for the Verein ensemble, trusting the intimacy and delicacy with which Mahler handles his orchestra to make the transcriber’s task less arduous than it might otherwise have been.

Ferrucio Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque, subtitled “The man’s cradle song at his mother’s coffin,” received its official premiere at a concert of the New York Philharmonic on 21 February 1911, the ailing Mahler’s very last appearance as a conductor. Written in memoriam for the composer’s mother, who had died on 3 October 1909, the score’s title page bears a dark drawing, in the foreground of which is a mother mourning over a cradle. In the background, through the doorway of the room, can be seen a funeral procession with a child-size coffin. Busoni included this short poem under the drawing: “The child’s cradle rocks / the hazard of his fate sways; / life’s path fades, / fades away into the eternal distance.” Busoni described his work as “Poesy for sixfold string quartet [six violins, six violas, six celli, six double basses] with mutes; three flutes, one oboe, three clarinets, four horns, gong, harp, and celesta.” Impressionistic in nature, it well illustrates the distinction Busoni drew between his music and that of his French contemporary: “Debussy differentiates between consonance and dissonance, but I am showing how to deny this distinction.” The New York critics were harsh, with the Times calling the Berceuse “a gruesome work by a modern composer writing in the most modern vein,” the Press finding it “weird, and, for the moment at least, incomprehensible,” and the conservative dean of American music critics, Henry Edward Krehbiel, writing in the Tribune: “this short work puts the patience of its auditors to a rude test. Better it were if Busoni had never written the piece, or at least not ‘honored’ New York with its premiere. In any case, it is unlike that New York will ever have to suffer a second hearing.”

Strauss’ famous “Emperor Waltz” was originally entitled “Hand in Hand,” and written to celebrate the reaffirmation of the friendship between Austria’s emperor Franz Joseph and the Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm, known to his subjects as “Old Fritz.” It received its premiere on 21 October 1889 under Strauss’s own direction, not in Vienna but in Berlin. According to one enthusiastic newspaper report: “The Emperor Waltz begins in a bellicose Prussian vein in which one can almost see and hear Old Fritz’s guardsmen marching past, but then everything becomes again echt wienerish (authentically Viennese), full of dash and verve.” Schönberg’s transcription was made with a specific purpose in mind: to serve as a “filler” work (uncharitable minds might substitute the word “antidote”) in a program devised for a tour in Spain and centering on his weirdly expressionistic Pierrot lunaire.

We have chosen to echo this deliberate juxtaposition of Old Vienna and the Austria of the Republic in our program by following the Strauss with Schönberg’s own 1922 transcription for chamber orchestra of the Lied der Waldtaube (“Song of the Wood Dove”) from his Gurre-Lieder. This work, setting German translations of texts by Jens Peter Jacobsen, was in large part written in 1900, but its orchestration, which called for forces so large (including vocal soloists, chorus, and a massive orchestra) that specially-printed staff paper with additional staves had to be prepared, was not completed until 1911. The story is that of a legend, based loosely on twelveth- and fourteenth-century historical figures, that has the status of a Danish Tristan und Isolde myth. King Waldemar’s lover, Tove, for whom he has built the castle at Gurre, is vengefully and brutally murdered by Helvig, his legitimate queen. Driven mad with grief, Waldemar, supported by a troop of accursed huntsmen including Henning, Tove’s brother, must pursue Tove’s spirit throughout eternity. The Lied der Waldtaube functions as a messenger or Greek chorus, relating events that have taken place “offstage.” Schönberg’s close attention in setting the text, including the refrain-like line beginning “Weit flog ich,” results in a powerful piece completely capable, as the composer well realized, of standing on its own outside the confines of its gargantuan parent work.

—Kenneth Slowik © 2007

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