Deer Valley® Music Festival

History of the Music

History of the Music


By Jeff Counts

Concerto Grosso

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Duration: 14 minutes in five movements

For reasons unknown and unwarranted, the legacy of Ralph Vaughan Williams is too often limited by his interest in English folk music and the handful of works he wrote in a pastoralist style. He was so much more than that, and music history always suffers at the hands of this kind of reductive sorting. Vaughan Williams made meaningful contributions to chamber music, choral music, opera, film scoring, and was one of the most important symphonists of the 20th century. He was also an incredibly generous collaborator, as is evidenced by his many contributions to English music education. It was early 1950 when Vaughan Williams was approached by a group of teachers to compose a work for the string students of the Rural Music Schools Association. He loved the idea and set to work right away on a Baroque Era inspired Concerto Grosso that would involve three distinct orchestras, separated by skill and education. The “Concertino” group was expected to possess the greatest level of refinement and their music reflected their status. The “Tutti” group was not required to go beyond third position and basic double stops, while the “Ad lib” team played music on open strings alone. Today, most performances leave out the “easy” music of the Ad lib orchestra, but with this simple but ingenious tripartite construction, Vaughan Williams created an opportunity for all 400 students (even the beginners!) to participate in the November premiere at Royal Albert Hall. Everyone was challenged according to their station in this massive assemblage, and no player was left behind. In both design and impact, the Concerto Grosso was a big success. Vaughan Williams, in keeping with his abiding humility, refused a place of honor in a box seat for the performance and set himself instead among the second violins on stage.

Concerto No. 5 in A Major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 219

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Duration: 31 minutes in three movements

Mozart’s five violin concerti share not only the same birth year, but also the same birth reason. His father Leopold (is it possible to write about Wolfgang without mentioning Leopold within the first two sentences?) was a renowned violin pedagogue and author of a respected technical treatise on the instrument. It is no surprise then that young Wolfgang began his violin studies at the age of six and was participating in concerts with his father’s colleagues just a few short years later. From there Wolfgang’s exposure to other expert violinists during various trips abroad increased and sparked within him a drive to explore the limits of his own virtuosity. This preoccupation culminated in 1775 with the exact handful of concerti Mozart composed in quick succession. Written in a roughly half-year stretch at the age of 19, these 5 works show a musician grappling with his own rapidly expanding compositional abilities, at first within the confines of current thought on the concerto form and then moving confidently beyond it. There is indication that he wrote these pieces for himself but, even if Mozart didn’t perform them all in public, they stamp this moment in his life with a fascinating specificity. Concerto No. 5 is, of course, the most robustly mature of the set, in that the composer’s imagination is as recognizable as his education. It was also a goodbye of sorts, since Mozart shifted more definitively towards the keyboard in the years that followed. He rarely thereafter picked up the violin in professional settings, preferring the viola whenever a bow was required of him. The now unfashionable nickname of Concerto No. 5 must be mentioned here, at least briefly. Called the “Turkish” in reference to a minor-keyed dance of the third movement that interrupts the traditional minuet, the work reflected a general Western European obsession with Turkey as a cultural stand-in for anything considered “exotic” in art.

Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 11

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) Duration: 32 minutes in four movements.

On the occasion of his 15th birthday in 1824, Mendelssohn graduated from apprentice to professional in the eyes of his teacher Carl Zelter. The acknowledgment, though generous in spirit, might have been unnecessary with Mendelssohn already so productive. But Zelter had instilled in his pupil a great love for the music of Bach, Mozart, and Haydn and truly felt he was ready to take his place among them.

Mendelssohn was not new to the symphony genre in 1824. He had already composed over a dozen by that point but none yet had included the requisite winds and brass that would make him eligible for comparison to the old masters. Those youthful efforts remain unnumbered in tacit validation of Mendelssohn’s “coming of age” in 1824. Zelter’s birthday pronouncement, which seemed to confirm Mendelssohn’s precocious brilliance and also presage his brief life, made it possible for the pupil to get an early start on his maturity as an artist. Still, at 15, it was to be expected that Mendelssohn’s voice would still include glimpses of his influences. His early “sound,” as would become manifest in the official Symphony No. 1, contained a fair portion of Mozart’s sense of style and structure as well as evidence that Mendelssohn took his study of Bach’s counterpoint quite seriously. There were also bits of more contemporary exemplars like Weber and Beethoven. All of these fantastic seeds of genius found very fertile ground with Mendelssohn, who would put them to respectful but sparing use. His highly selective application of the current but nascent Romantic-era ideals to Symphony No. 1 was emblematic of an ethic that would come to define a short but robust composing life. Mendelssohn already displayed the poise and discipline of a life-long Classicist, taking from the revolution only what was necessary to feed his own highly refined musical personality.

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