About the Music

About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

 

Piano Concerto in F (1925)

— George Gershwin

Born September 26, 1898 in Brooklyn, New York. Died July 11, 1937 in Hollywood, California

Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony and one of this country’s most prominent musical figures for the half-century before World War II, was among the Aeolian Hall audience when George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue exploded above the musical world on February 12, 1924. He recognized Gershwin’s genius (and, no doubt, the opportunity for wide publicity), and approached him a short time later with a proposal for another large-scale work. A concerto for piano was agreed upon, and Gershwin was awarded a commission from the New York Symphony to compose the piece and also to be the soloist at its premiere and a half dozen subsequent concerts. The story that Gershwin then rushed out and bought a reference book explaining what a concerto is probably is apocryphal. He did, however, study the scores of some of the concertos of earlier masters to discover how they had handled the problems of structure and instrumental balance, and he also obtained a copy of Forsyth’s Standard Manual of Orchestration. Gershwin felt he needed a book on this latter subject because he, like virtually all Broadway composers then and now, entrusted the orchestration of his theater scores to a professional arranger. (The Rhapsody in Blue was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé.) This new concerto, he decided, would be entirely his own work, so he set about learning the techniques of writing for the symphony orchestra.

Gershwin later recorded his attitude toward the composition of the Concerto. “Many persons had thought that the Rhapsody was only a happy accident,” he wrote. “Well, I wanted to show that there was plenty more where that had come from. I made up my mind to do a piece of ‘absolute’ music. The Rhapsody, as its title implied, was a blues impression. The Concerto would be unrelated to any program. And that is exactly how I wrote it. I learned a great deal from that experience, particularly in the handling of instruments in combination.” He made the first extensive sketches for the work while in London during May 1925. By July, back home, he was able to play for his friends large fragments of the evolving work, tentatively entitled “New York Concerto.” The first movement was completed by the end of that month, the second and third by September, and the orchestration carried out in October and November, by which time the title had become simply Concerto in F. Because of the large royalties from his shows and the Rhapsody in Blue, he was able to hire a full orchestra for a trial performance during the process of orchestration. He not only revised the scoring and made some cuts after this session, but also admitted that the run-through gave him the “greatest musical thrill” of his life.

The Concerto is in the jazz-inspired idiom of the Rhapsody in Blue. The work’s premiere, on December 3, 1925, was a success, though it did not engender unbridled enthusiasm as had the Rhapsody. Damrosch, however, was more than pleased with the new work, as he testified in this colorful account: “Various composers have been walking around jazz like a cat around a plate of hot soup, waiting for it to cool off, so they could enjoy it without burning their tongues, hitherto accustomed only to the more tepid liquid distilled by the cooks of the classical school. Lady Jazz, adorned with her intriguing rhythms, has danced her way around the world, even as far as the Eskimos of the North and the Polynesians of the South Sea Isles. But for all her travels and her sweeping popularity, she has encountered no knight who could lift her to a level that would enable her to be received as a respectable member of musical circles. George Gershwin seems to have accomplished this miracle. He has done it boldly by dressing this extremely independent and up-to-date young lady in the classic garb of a concerto. Yet he has not detracted one whit from her fascinating personality. He is the Prince who has taken Cinderella by the hand and openly proclaimed her a princess to the astonished world.”

Gershwin provided a short analysis of the Concerto for the New York Tribune of November 29, 1925, just four days before the work’s premiere: “The first movement employs a Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life. It begins with a rhythmic motif given out by the kettledrums, supported by other percussion instruments and with a Charleston motif introduced by bassoon, horns, clarinets and violas. The principal theme is announced by the bassoon. Later, a second theme is introduced by the piano. The second movement has a poetic nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated. The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping the same pace throughout.”

Though Gershwin based his Concerto loosely on classical formal models, its structure is episodic in nature. His words above do not mention several other melodies that appear in the first and second movements, nor the return of some of those themes in the finale as a means of unifying the work’s overall structure. He was learning as he went, and this Concerto is nothing short of astonishing when it is realized that it was only his second concert work, written when he was just 27 years old. Few other composers could boast of such a successful beginning. Noting the brilliant natural talent displayed in the Concerto, Milton Cross wrote, “[The flaws in Gershwin’s large works] become insignificant when placed beside the many strong points: the amazing melodic inventiveness; the never-failing freshness of ideas; the basic feeling for rhythm; the extraordinary instincts which dictated the proper effect and the precise means; the unfailing inspiration in getting the idea required by the big moment. His talent, in short, was a conservatory in itself.”

 

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-1907)

— Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born April 1, 1873 in Oneg (near Novgorod), Russia. Died March 28, 1943 in Beverly Hills, California.

How much Rachmaninoff’s life changed in just a half dozen years! The premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was a complete failure, a total fiasco. The Russian nationalist composer César Cui ranted, “If there is a conservatory competition in Hell, Rachmaninoff would gain first prize for this Symphony.” Rimsky-Korsakov did not find it “at all agreeable.” Young Rachmaninoff — aged 24 — was plunged into a Stygian despair. For over two years, he entertained the darkest thoughts and composed nothing. Then in 1900, he began consulting one Dr. Nicholas Dahl, a physician specializing in the treatment of alcoholism through hypnosis. Dahl’s method of auto-suggestion (and probably his enlightened conversation about music) restored the composer’s confidence and desire to work. Within a year, the grand Second Concerto was produced and successfully launched into the world, and Rachmaninoff was on his way to international fame. By 1905, he was one of the most important figures in Russian music.

Beside his prodigious talents as pianist and composer, Rachmaninoff was also a first-rate conductor, and when his stock began rising after the Second Concerto carried his name into important Russian circles, he was appointed opera conductor at the Moscow Imperial Grand Theater. As with his music, he found excellent success with his conducting, but he had understandable misgivings about the way it interfered with his creative ambitions. In an interview with Frederick H. Martens, he said, “When I am concertizing I cannot compose. When I feel like writing music I have to concentrate on that — I cannot touch the piano. When I am conducting I can neither compose nor play concerts. Other musicians may be more fortunate in this respect; but I have to concentrate on any one thing I am doing to such a degree that it does not seem to allow me to take up anything else.” There was much music in him that needed to be written, and he knew that a choice about the direction of his future work was imminent.

By the beginning of 1906, he had decided to sweep away the rapidly accumulating obligations of conducting, concertizing, and socializing that cluttered his life in Moscow in order to find some quiet place in which to compose. His determination may have been strengthened by the political unrest beginning to rumble under the foundations of the aristocratic Russian political system. The uprising of 1905 was among the first signs of trouble for those of his noble class (his eventual move to the United States was a direct result of the swallowing of his family’s estate and resources by the 1917 Revolution), and he probably thought it a good time to start looking for a quiet haven.

A few years before, Rachmaninoff had been overwhelmed by an inspired performance of Die Meistersinger he heard at the Dresden Opera. The memory of that evening and the aura of dignity and repose exuded by the city had remained with him, and Dresden, at that time in his life, seemed like a good place to be. Besides, the city was only two hours by train from Leipzig, where Arthur Nikisch, whom Rachmaninoff considered the greatest living conductor and who had shown an interest in his music, was music director. The decision to move to Dresden was made early in 1906, and by autumn the composer, his wife and their new-born daughter were installed in a small but smart house complemented by an attractive garden. They arrived quietly, and lived, as much as possible, incognito and in seclusion. When he chanced to meet a Russian acquaintance on the street one day, Rachmaninoff pleaded, “I have escaped from my friends. Please don’t give me away.” The atmosphere in Dresden was so conducive to composition that within a few months of his arrival he was working on the Second Symphony, the First Piano Sonata, the Op. 6 collection of Russian folk songs and the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead. The Second Symphony was unanimously cheered when it made the rounds of the Russian concert societies in 1908, and it was an important item on Rachmaninoff’s first American tour the following year.

The majestic scale of the Symphony is established at the outset by a slow, brooding introduction. The low strings and then the violins give out a fragmentary theme which generates much of the material for the entire work. A smooth transition to a faster tempo signals the arrival of the main theme, an extended and quickened transformation of the basses’ opening motive. The expressive second theme enters in the woodwinds. The development deals with the vigorous main theme to such an extent that the beginning of the formal recapitulation is engulfed by its surging sweep. The lovely second theme reappears as expected, again in the woodwinds. The coda resumes the energetic mood of the development to build to the fine climax which ends the movement.

The second movement is the most nimble essay in Rachmaninoff’s orchestral works. After two preparatory measures, the horns hurl forth the main theme, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dies Irae, the ancient chant from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead that haunted the composer for many years. The vital nature of the music, however, does not support any morbid interpretation. Eventually, the rhythmic bustle is suppressed and finally silenced to make way for the movement’s central section, whose skipping lines embody some of Rachmaninoff’s best fugal writing. Almost as if by magic, the opening scherzo returns amid a full-throated cry from the brass. Once again, this passage quiets and the movement ends on a note of considerable mystery.

The rapturous third movement, wrote Patrick Piggott, “is as romantic as any music in the orchestral repertory — if by romantic we mean the expression, through lyrical melody and richly chromatic harmony, of a sentiment which can only be described as love.” This is music of heightened passion that resembles nothing so much as an ecstatic operatic love scene. Alternating with the joyous principal melody is an important theme from the first movement, heard prominently in the central portion and the coda of this movement.

The finale bursts forth in the whirling dance rhythm of an Italian tarantella. The propulsive urgency subsides to allow another of Rachmaninoff’s wonderful, sweeping melodic inspirations to enter. A development of the tarantella motives follows, into which are embroidered thematic reminiscences from each of the three preceding movements. The several elements of the finale are gathered together in the closing pages to produce the rich and sonorous tapestry appropriate for the life-affirming conclusion of this grand and stirring Symphony.

©2015 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

 

HARRISBURG SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Saturday, May 6, 2017 at 8:00 p.m.  |  Sunday, May 7, 2017 at 3:00 p.m.

STUART MALINA, Conducting and Piano

GREGORY WOODBRIDGE, Conducting*

 

Piano Concerto in F*
George Gershwin (1898-1937)

Allegro
Andante con moto
Allegro agitato

— INTERMISSION—

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Largo — Allegro moderato
Allegro molto
Adagio
Allegro vivace

UPCOMING EVENTS

Jun 30 - Jul 04, 2017

Summer Concerts

In the days around the 4th of July, our all-professional orchestra performs in a variety of community settings. Gather your friends and family, grab blankets or lawn chairs, and join us for at least one of the concerts in our FREE Summer Concerts Series.

FREE - No ticket needed

Currently available to subscribers only
On sale to general public 10 AM, September 2.

Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
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Currently available to subscribers only
On sale to general public 10 AM, September 2

Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
Tickets: Pricing TBA

Currently available to subscribers only
On sale to general public 10 AM, September 2.

Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
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Nov 13, 2017

HSYO Fall Concert

Join the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra and Junior Youth String Orchestra as they kick off their 2016/17 season. The Capital Region’s most talented young musicians perform under the direction of Maestros Gregory Woodbridge and Krista Kriel.

7 PM, The Forum

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On sale to general public 10 AM, September 2.

Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
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Currently available to subscribers only
On sale to general public 10 AM, September 2

Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
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Currently available to subscribers only
On sale to general public 10 AM, September 2.

Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
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The Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra and Junior Youth String Orchestra start the New Year off with an inspired performance of orchestral classics under the direction of Maestros Gregory Woodbridge and Krista Kriel.

7 PM, The Forum

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Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
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Currently available to subscribers only
On sale to general public 10 AM, September 2.

Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
Tickets: Pricing TBA

Currently available to subscribers only
On sale to general public 10 AM, September 2.

Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
Tickets: Pricing TBA

Currently available to subscribers only
On sale to general public 10 AM, September 2

Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
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Celebrate Mother’s Day with family and music! The Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra and Junior Youth String Orchestra perform orchestral favorites under the direction of Maestros Gregory Woodbridge and Krista Kriel.

3 PM, the Forum

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Sat. 8 PM, Sun. 3 PM, The Forum
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