Deer Valley® Music Festival

History of the Music

History of the Music

BMW of Murray

By Jeff Counts

Le tombeau de Couperin

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)

Duration: 17 minutes in four movements

The French word tombeau translates as "tomb" or "grave" but in a musical setting it is occasionally used as an alternative to the more familiar term homage. Ravel's Tombeau was written between 1914 and 1917, ostensibly as a tribute to the great French Baroque master François Couperin, but Ravel later wrote that it was "directed less in fact to Couperin himself than to French music of the 18th century." Originally scored for solo piano, the piece was made up of six characteristic dance forms, each viewed through the prism of Ravel's own unique voice. An even deeper measure of remembrance existed as Ravel dedicated each movement to a friend who lost his life in (or was greatly affected by) the Great War. Ravel, too short, too slight, and too sickly to serve as a soldier, had done his noble part as an ambulance driver at the front. Some early listeners assumed irreverence in the light touch and occasional wit of the music, but a subtle tinge of wistfulness can be heard beneath the more obvious charms of the work's outer layer. Ravel responded to the notion that his commemoration lacked adequate solemnity by stating, "The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence." Four of the movements were orchestrated in 1919 and premiered one year later. Ravel's genius with instrumentation—always staggering in its clarity and inventiveness—was on full display with this newer Tombeau and, though others have since attempted to arrange the other two dances from the piano suite, nobody got close enough to Ravel's high standard to have their work regularly performed.

Suite from Pulcinella (1949 revision)

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)

Duration: 20 minutes in 8 movements

We continue on the subject of homage. In the years just after the first World War, Igor Stravinsky was poised for one of the two great shifts of his compositional life. Frequent collaborator and sometime friend, the famed ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev had suggested he write a new piece using the music of the 18th-Century Italian composer Pergolesi, and Stravinsky found the idea absurd at first. That the composer of The Rite of Spring should be asked to create such a "forgery" was even mildly insulting. But something in the idea did catch hold in him, despite his initial reluctance, and when Stravinsky began to study Pergolesi in earnest, he "fell in love." Pulcinella was born of this unexpected pairing of old and new, and marks the beginning of the longest and most fertile period for Stravinsky: his Neoclassical phase. "Pulcinella was my discovery of the past," he wrote, "the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible." Rather than simply and respectfully arrange the antique music of Pergolesi, Stravinsky knew he must instead "repeat him in my own accent." The result is a delightful and perfectly constructed blend of both voices, one which preserves the 18th-century melodic and harmonic content while showcasing elements of Stravinsky's own quirky rhythmic language and colorful instrumentation. The story itself reaches even further back in time and is a classic commedia dell'arte romp with all of the usual 16th-century social difficulties and resolutions, including a kiss, some jealousy, a little false magic, and few happy concluding marriages. Stravinsky extracted an instrumental suite from the ballet in 1922 and revised it later in 1949.

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Duration: 32 minutes in four movements

Beethoven spent the summer months of 1802 in the village of Heiligenstadt. The hope was that an extended break from the bustle of Vienna might improve his health in general and his hearing in particular. As we now know, his deafness would not be curable by any amount of rest. We also know that two very different personal utterances date from the following October—a new symphony and a desperate letter. The famous Heiligenstadt Testament, not discovered until after Beethoven's death, speaks of "blighted hope" and "courage disappeared" and is a tragically acute description of his depression. Especially heartbreaking is his recounting of a moment when "someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing." How then do we reconcile the light-hearted, often humorous 2nd Symphony that was completed in tandem with this scream into the void? It could be that Beethoven did most of the finish work on the piece while he was still optimistic about the healing effects of the countryside. It could also be that his visit to "rock-bottom" uncovered a hidden well of fortitude. Whatever the case may be, the 2nd Symphony marked the beginning of a paradoxically productive period for Beethoven, a man who so often fell into inactivity when fate betrayed him. The music is playful, witty, and energetic. It lacks the stormy, furrowed-brow qualities of the 3rd and 5th symphonies but has plenty of its own ingenuity to offer. Beethoven replaced the traditional minuet movement with a scherzo and crafted a finale so quirky it elicited one of greatest critic comments in music history, about a "wounded dragon that refuses to die and, though bleeding in the finale, furiously thrashes about with its stiffened tail." Hilarious…and wrong.

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