A Woodwind Affair
Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
At the turn of the twentieth century, many artists looked to the future, making a self-conscious break from the past and fully seizing the Modern. But others reacted against this mandate of newness by embracing the past. This Neoclassical tendency was particularly strong among French composers, as they associated Modernism with German nationalism, and they wanted to celebrate their own musical heritage. Neoclassicism persisted for several decades, as can be heard in Francis Poulenc’s Suite française (d’après Claude Gevaise) from 1935. Poulenc composed this suite as incidental music to the play La reine Margot by Edouard Bourdet; the melodies come from a book of dances by Renaissance composer Claude Gervaise, published sometime in the 1550s. It begins with the Bransle de Bourgogne, alternating phrases between various sections in a chipper dance intended to evoke the wine region of Burgundy. The Pavane is a slow, stately dance that opens with rich, chorale-style harmonies, but soon veers into harsh dissonance yearning for resolution. The Petite march militare features a bright recurring theme that snaps into place. The Complainte begins with a mournful, meandering oboe solo that creeping through the rest of the ensemble. The Bransle de Champagne, with short alternating phrases like the opening movement, similarly refers to another famous wine region of France. The melody of the Sicilienne occasionally features the characteristic “long-short-long” rhythmic pattern; the swaying accompaniment gently propels the dance. Finally, the Carillon imitates a bell tower, with its chiming melody interspersed between contrasting episodes.
Whereas Poulenc’s foray into the past stays in France, Jeff Scott celebrates ancient beliefs in Africa and the Americas in his Sacred Women. Scott, a French horn player from Queens, New York, has had a diverse career performing on Broadway, as a studio musician, with dance troupes, and with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He is also a founding member of the Imani Winds, an all African-American ensemble known for adventurous programming. Sacred Women was commissioned by Utah State University and premiered at the 2012 meeting of the International Double Reed Society. A suite for double wind quintet, each movement is named for a powerful goddess. The movements begin with a prayer that summons each specific goddess, then continues with a celebratory dance in recognition of her spirit. The first evokes the Egyptian mother goddess Isis with a winding, intricate flute solo reminiscent of the Middle East. It rouses the rest of the ensemble, which joins in a lively march. The second movement, Iemanjá, refers to the mother goddess of the Yoruba religion. In Brazil, Iemanjá is venerated as the Queen of the Ocean, protector of fishermen. Broad horn calls with echoes conjure the vastness of the sea; a vibrant dance bursts out, depicting the annual festivals in her honor. The final movement, Mawu, takes its name from the creator goddess of Dahomey mythology, which originated in Benin and became the basis of some Afro-Caribbean religions. The winds swirl in chaos, but melodies emerge as Mawu forms the earth and all living creatures.
Like Poulenc, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky also turned toward Neoclassicism, though the style carried a different set of associations for him. Stravinsky saw it less as a celebration of the past than an assertion of objectivity, a return to clear musical forms. He also found that wind instruments were particularly suited to this aesthetic. When he composed his Octet for Winds in 1924, he also published an explanation of his new style that serves as a sort of manifesto. He wrote, “Wind instruments seem to me to be more apt to render a certain rigidity of the form I had in mind than other instruments – the string instruments, for example, which are less cold and more vague.” He explains that strings’ sonorities tend to blend together, whereas each wind instrument retains its identity, allowing for greater contrasts. This aesthetic is on display in an earlier work, his Symphonies of Wind Instruments, composed in 1920 and revised in 1947. Despite the title, the work is a single movement; the word “symphonies” here does not indicate a genre or form, but Stravinsky chose the plural word to invoke the older definition of a variety of instruments “sounding together.” It begins with a rhythmic passage that will interject throughout the first portion of the piece; it contrasts the harsh woodwinds with the rounder tones of the brass. Much like Stravinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring, Symphonies features short, folk-like melodies repeated, juxtaposed, and layered upon each other. The middle section becomes a relentless chase. Symphonies concludes with a solemn chorale that Stravinsky originally published in Revue Musicale—the magazine asked composers to contribute brief musical tributes to honor the memory of Claude Debussy, who had died in 1918.
Concluding tonight’s program of wind music from around the world is German composer Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, a 1929 suite from The Threepenny Opera, which premiered the previous year. The opera, a collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, took the satirical 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera as a point of departure and amped up bawdiness while updating the references to popular culture, turning it into a socialist critique of capitalism. The Overture opens with stern chords and intricate, fugue-like counterpoint, a nod to its ancient source. With “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” however, the music struts into the cabaret, with a tune that has become associated with crooners from Frank Sinatra to Michael Bublé. Next, the “Instead-Of-Song” paces in frustration; in the opera, this is a duet between the boss of the beggars, Peachum, and his wife as they complain about the foolishness of their daughter Polly and her generation. “The Ballad of the Easy Life” kicks up its heels in a jazzy foxtrot; the cheerful melody is at odds with the biting cynicism of the lyrics as Mack proclaims that it is easier to act morally when one already has money. “Polly’s Song” is delicate and sincere, with a lyrical solo that passes through the woodwinds, accompanied by sighing figures as she longs for Mack in his absence. Mack, however, visits his old lover Jenny during the “Tango,” a sultry dance with a relentless rhythmic drive. The “Cannon Song” is full of bugle calls and marching beats to accompany its sardonic melody, reveling in the tidy gruesomeness of military life. The “Finale” is ominous, with winding lines over a plodding accompaniment that trudges toward an unexpectedly grandiose conclusion.