D’un matin de printemps [Of a Spring Morning]
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
Length: c. 6 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and sarrusophone (a metal reed instrument, its part optionally played by contrabassoon, as it is here), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (triangle, suspended cymbal, small snare drum or castanets), harp, celesta, and strings
Lili Boulanger showed exceptional musical ability at an extremely young age. Her precocious talent and unusual level of maturity allowed her to begin serious studies before she turned five, accompanying her older sister Nadia to her classes at the Paris Conservatoire. (Nadia Boulanger went on to become the most important musical pedagogue of the 20th century.) At age 19, Lili Boulanger shocked the musical world by winning the prestigious Prix de Rome for her cantata Faust et Hélène, the first time in the over 100-year history of the prize that it was awarded to a woman. Years later, Nadia Boulanger speculated that Lili was driven to express what was inside of her early on because “she was aware that her life would be brief, her time measured.” Immunocompromised by childhood pneumonia, Lili battled through constant health problems throughout her life, succumbing to intestinal tuberculosis at age 24.
Her orchestral tone poem Of a Spring Morning was among her final completed works. The piece began as a work for violin and piano in 1917, and Boulanger orchestrated it within two months of her death, likely dictated in part to her sister, who notated it for her. The piece was a companion to the dark, occasionally terrifying D’un soir triste (Of a Sad Evening), composed concurrently. The works share similar musical material, which harmonically and orchestrally lean towards the French Impressionist style of Debussy. While Sad Evening sounds like a deathbed work, with its somber harmonic mood, Spring Morning is shimmering and sprightly.
What to listen for
The entirety of Spring Morning is based on three features in the opening flute melody: the initial sustained encircling of a single note, the subsequent gesture that soars upward before partially descending, and the final dotted-rhythm gesture that wings wildly with carefree lightness.
Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Length: c. 21 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling e-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum), strings, and solo violin
The idea to write a concerto for violin came not from Stravinsky himself but from German publisher Willy Strecker. During a visit by Stravinksy at the publisher’s home in October 1930, Strecker introduced Stravinsky to Polish violinist Samuel Dushkin, hoping the acquaintance might compel the composer to write a concerto for Dushkin. Surprisingly, Strecker’s plan succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. Not only would Stravinsky collaborate closely with Dushkin on the concerto, but he would also go on to compose a number of other pieces for him. The two went on a series of lucrative performance tours together, including two extensive tours in the United States in the 1930s, laying the groundwork for the composer’s permanent relocation to the States.
Stravinsky originally showed the striking opening violin chord of the piece to Dushkin, famously sketched on a napkin at a Paris café over lunch, and the violinist proclaimed that such enormous gaps between the notes would make the chord impossible to play. However, after returning home, Dushkin gave it a try and found that it was indeed possible, and it became a sonic touchstone for the work; Stravinsky himself called it the “passport to the Concerto.”
Stravinsky said of the work:
The Violin Concerto was not inspired by or modeled on any example. I do not like the standard violin concertos—not Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, or Brahms’s. To my mind, the only masterpiece in the field is Schoenberg’s, and that was written several years after mine. The titles of my movements, Toccata, Aria, Capriccio, suggest Bach, however, and so to some extent does the musical substance. My favorite Bach solo concerto is the one for two violins, as the duet with a violin from the orchestra in the last movement must show. But the Violin Concerto contains other duet combinations, too, and the texture of the music is more chamber music in style than orchestral.
What to listen for
- First movement: the dissonant passport chord opens the piece and is followed with joyous, swirling, dancelike rhythms and melodies. A surprisingly consonant (the opposite of dissonant) chord ends the movement.
- Second movement: the dramatic violin chord also opens this movement, now followed by prickly pizzicato pulses in the solo violin.
- Third movement: the now-familiar chord is intricately reimagined as an impassioned cry that takes the entire introspective movement to work through.
- Fourth movement: it was likely this jaunty dash of a movement that prompted a Berlin critic at the premiere to describe the piece as “amusing, incredibly witty music of inspired refinement, music of a thousand touches.”
Capriccio Italien, Op. 45
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Length: c. 16 minutes
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, crash cymbals, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel), harp, and strings
After his doomed marriage failed disastrously in 1878, Tchaikovsky embarked on a prolonged period of travel to clear his mind and reinspire his creativity. It worked wonders. In short order, he had composed his monumental Fourth Symphony, his opera Eugene Onegin, and his Violin Concerto. After spending a large part of 1879 in Paris, Tchaikovsky moved on to Italy reluctantly, only after he had been completely worn down by his brother Modest’s persistent entreaties. He was pleasantly surprised when he arrived in Rome in December, finding inspiration in both the art and the street life of the city. By early February, Tchaikovsky wrote:
I am working on a sketch of an ‘Italian Fantasia’ based on folk songs. Thanks to the charming themes, some of which I’ve heard on the streets and others from song compilations, the work will be effective.
The work would become his Capriccio Italien, a simple and direct burst of joy from a composer doing what he could to forget his dark troubles.
The title of the work shares the “capriccio” designation with the final movement of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Italian for “whim” or “fancy,” its musical designation is broadly understood as indicating a blending of “the sentimental and the witty” (in Schumann’s words). It’s a term that is often attached to music that “can add, take away, digress, turn, and direct [as it] wishes,” an apt description of both capriccio pieces on tonight’s program.
What to listen for
Tchaikovsky weaves five Italian tunes into his colorful work, beginning with the opening trumpet fanfare. It is based on the bugle call of the Royal Cuirassiers that Tchaikovsky was subject to every morning from an army barracks next to his hotel in Rome.
Program notes by Jon Kochavi