The 20th Century Chamber Orchestra

Tuesday, July 30, 2019 , 6:30 PM

Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

Stravinsky: Concerto in E-flat Major for Chamber Orchestra, “Dumbarton Oaks”

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1, Op. 25, “Classical”

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Le Tombeau de Couperin

Composed: 1914-17
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling on English horn), 2 clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, harp, and strings

Filled with nationalist pride at the onset of World War I, Ravel desperately wanted to enlist, preferably in the air force. But the composer was already 39, and his intermittent health issues precluded his admission into the fighting wings of the armed forces. Still wanting to serve, Ravel began the war tending to wounded soldiers in St. Jean de Luz, and eventually became a military truck driver at the front, proudly referring to himself as “Driver Ravel.”  He had little time for composition during the war, but was able to spend some time expanding a piano suite he began just before the outbreak of hostilities, reconceiving it as what he called a “French Suite”. Rather than writing a musical work of wartime propaganda, Ravel chose to honor his country by celebrating the French Baroque tradition which he took to best represent the French sensibility. His particular models were the four volumes of keyboard ordres, or suites, composed by François Couperin during the early 18th century. After being discharged for health reasons, Ravel completed the work, renaming it Le Tombeau de Couperin (The Tomb of Couperin), and dedicating each of the six movements to the memory of friends who had died during the war. The movements are remarkable for their pointillistic clarity, all cast in traditional forms—perfectly constructed stylized miniatures. The following year, Ravel masterfully arranged four of these movements for orchestra, with strong emphasis on the wind instruments.

The fleet Prélude bounces along in a 12/16 meter. A recurring ornamental neighbor note motion punctuates the movement. As the music builds to moments of climax, these neighbors, which usually move down from the principal note, switch to become upper neighbors, adding to the momentum.

A Forlane is an Italian dance, but François Couperin used it as the basis for a suite movement that Ravel had transcribed in preparation for Tombeau. Ravel’s rich orchestration here seems so natural that it’s difficult to imagine its pianistic origins without hearing both.

The Menuet becomes a showcase for the winds in Ravel’s orchestration, with the focus on the oboe and flute solos. The contrasting middle section features the strings. It is a musette, a pastoral piece that evokes the French peasant bagpipe, and was a genre explored by Couperin.

A Rigaudon is a lively Baroque dance in duple meter with origins in the south of France. Ravel’s sparkling version is launched by a jocular opening gesture that will return again and again as a framing device, closing one section of music and beginning another. The quick shifts in orchestration here create a panoply of colors. In the contrasting middle section, a contemplative oboe melody is backed up by other winds. The piece finishes with a return to the carefree dance from the start.


Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Concerto in E-flat Major for Chamber Orchestra, “Dumbarton Oaks”

Composed: 1937-38
Instrumentation: Flute, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, and reduced strings: 3 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, 2 basses

Stravinsky’s neo-Classical chamber work is a “concerto” in the Baroque concerto grosso sense: it features varying instruments taking on the solo or solo group (the concertino group) roles through the piece. Stravinsky insisted that the words “Dumbarton Oaks” become a part of the name of his chamber concerto as a tribute to Mildred Bliss. Bliss had commissioned the work for her husband in honor of their 30th wedding anniversary, and the piece was premiered at their estate named Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, DC. Stravinsky offered to dedicate the piece to her, but she told him it would mean more to her to honor the estate, which included multiple structures, parks, and a library, a place that Bliss envisioned as having a continuing role in hosting musical and artistic events. After the premiere, Stravinsky wrote to his publisher with this naming request, musing about his new benefactress and her utopian gardens:

I could go on tranquilly composing Dumbarton Oaks Concertos as Bach did his Brandenburg Concerti. But, for the moment, let us not consider the many possibilities that may emerge with this new Frederick the Great, but turn our attention instead to correcting the large number of mistakes in the [score].

His German publisher was appalled at the request, responding incredulously:

No one outside of America will understand the designation or be able to pronounce it, and stupid remarks may even be made about the name, since it resembles duck or frog sounds in French and German pronunciation.

Somewhat ironically, the American commission was Stravinsky’s final piece to be completely composed in Europe. Just after the outbreak of war in September 1939, Stravinsky traveled to New York, becoming a United States citizen a few years later.

Stravinsky’s mention of the Brandenburgs was apropos. His concerto references Bach’s great chamber symphony works in style, texture, and even in some melodic turns. The crystal-clear lines in the lively first movement directly reference motives from the third Brandenburg concerto, and an intermittent walking bass line and eventual fugal texture strengthen this connection. The movement ends with a surprising series of sustained chords which act as a transition into the humorous second movement. This movement is filled with short, fragmentary gestures made up of large melodic leaps punctuated by low bassoon blurps and cello pizzicatos. The energetic finale builds its material using the lower neighbor motive from the Brandenburg concerto referenced in the first movement, delivering a kaleidoscopic array of instrumental combinations for a bright timbral palette.


Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25, “Classical”

Composed: 1916-18
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Prokofiev graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the outbreak of World War I, and by the time that Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in early 1917, St. Petersburg had become a war zone as the Bolsheviks were gaining momentum and support. Prokofiev decided to leave Petrograd and spent nearly a year in the Caucasus. A few months after the October Revolution of 1917, he left Russia for the West, more out of practical concerns related to the ongoing civil war and economic uncertainty than ideological differences with the new regime. He would spend the next years of his life traveling the world, residing in the United States, Germany, and France.

Prokofiev began work on his Classical Symphony in 1916, continuing composing through his time of isolation in the Caucasus, and completed it after the October Revolution. Like Ravel, then, Prokofiev was perhaps looking for a musical outlet to transport him away from the stresses and strains of the World War I horrors, and his deep knowledge of the Classical repertoire provided a source for this escapism. In the symphony, he melded modern musical elements with those of his predecessors, specifically using Haydn as a model:

It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived into our age, he would have preserved his own style of composing while absorbing something from the new music. I wanted to compose that kind of symphony: a symphony in the Classical style.

Using techniques of orchestration that he learned in Nicolai Tcherpnin’s conducting class at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Prokofiev wrote the third movement Gavotte first, completing it in 1916, before moving on to the other three.

The ingenuity Prokofiev brings to this project is displayed magnificently in the jaunty opening movement. The texture is light and the phrases lilt as gracefully as one might expect in a Haydn allegro. To reflect his own time, Prokofiev takes liberties, exaggerating some gestures to humorous effect:  cadences are often punctuated by sudden full orchestral chords, a grand pause at the end of the exposition lasts just a little too long, and a delicate second theme is built upon absurdly wide two-octave drops which Haydn would never dare ask for. The quirky harmonic scheme is also pure Prokofiev, using off-kilter modulatory swerves and not-quite-right arrivals (the recapitulation begins one step too low on C major, for example).

The Larghetto begins as a counterbalance to the opening, hiding and delaying the cadential points that were pounded out there. The movement can be divided into roughly three sections. The first presents the inexorably unwinding melody descending through the strings, and the second introducing a steady stream of homophonic pizzicato, or plucked, 16th notes through the orchestra. The third section cleverly combines these two elements into a kind of recapitulation.

As its title indicates, the Gavotte movement is a stately dance in A-B-A form, just as one would expect in a Classical movement. Within the confines of this form, Prokofiev puts his own stamp on the style in much the same way he did in the opening movement, by using large melodic leaps in the opening theme and slight chromatic adjustments that give the work a gently off-center quality without undermining the simplicity of the form.

The Finale is a feat of nimble acrobatics, as if Prokofiev is trying to best the Viennese masters at their own game. Though in the character of a high-energy rondo, it is surprisingly cast in sonata form, complete with a repetition of the entire exposition section. Don’t blink: despite having roughly the same number of measures as the rest of the symphony’s movements combined, this final movement lasts all of four minutes!


Program notes by Jon Kochavi