The Birds Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61

When really pressed, Ludwig van Beethoven could work fast. In a letter to his publisher in mid-November 1806 there is no mention of the Violin Concerto as work in progress, but on December 23 it was premiered by Franz Clement, a friend of the composer and leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien. As was common with Beethoven, he made continual changes in the manuscript after the premiere until publication in 1808, but the changes were mostly in detail and not in the fundamental conception of the work.

Franz Clement was a formidable musician with a prodigious musical memory, lauded both for his technique and his impeccable intonation and musicianship. From manuscript sources it becomes clear that he tried to advise Beethoven on phrasing and the technical possibilities of the instrument, but that the composer took only a few of his suggestions. In the Concerto Beethoven provided him with immense challenges, both technical and musical. In retrospect, it is clear that the Concerto was the first major violin concerto of the late Classical period, acting as a model for the subsequent works of Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms and Max Bruch.

The premiere, however, was not a success, nor did the work fare much better the following year. The public simply did not get it. The turning point for the Concerto came in 1844, when 13-year-old Joseph Joachim performed it in London with the Philharmonic Society, Mendelssohn conducting. For the occasion, the Society set aside its rule against the appearance of child prodigies. Joachim at 13 was considered a fully mature artist.

It is an amusing – and often educational – exercise to take a time trip to put oneself in the shoes of an audience who rejected a work of art that subsequently went on to be haled as a masterpiece. So what did Beethoven’s audience object to in the Violin Concerto?

First of all, there is the sheer heft of the piece; even Mozart’s five violin concertos were significantly shorter and lightweight by comparison. Then there’s the opening; Beethoven was no newcomer to controversial openings. Was it the four repeated identical solo timpani beats that form part of the main theme that amazed Beethoven’s contemporaries? Haydn had done the same thing in the Symphony No. 103, the “Drum Roll,” but that was a symphony, not a violin concerto. At the fifth beat, the woodwinds, and particularly the oboe, chime in with a gentle melody,  but the four notes return immediately, now a motto that carries over in all the themes. &

The Concerto contains cadenzas for all three movements, but it also contains many cadenza-like passages. Clement’s virtuosity and pinpoint accuracy of intonation inspired the composer. While Mozart was a fine violinist, that instrument was not his forte, and his concerti were for his own use. But Beethoven wrote the Violin Concerto for a brilliant young violinist – and composer and conductor as well – whose virtuosity and pinpoint accuracy of intonation inspired him to give special prominence to the E-string. The soloist’s entrance in the first movement is a telling example, and passages in all three movements occupy the instrument’s stratosphere where even Vivaldi had seldom trod.

The second movement, Larghetto, is a chorale-like theme and a set of four variations. Throughout his life, Beethoven had been an innovator in the ancient genre of theme and variations, the final movement of his Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) being but one example. In the Violin Concerto, the theme is not the standard sequence of two repeated strains. Rather, it is a long melody with no internal repeats. Likewise, the soloist doesn’t simply embellish the melody with increasingly acrobatic and elaborate decoration, but rather builds the emotional intensity. Near the end of the movement, Beethoven provides a section of new material following the fourth variation and a short cadenza, leading without a break into the Rondo Finale. This, a lively bravura movement based on a dancing folk-like theme as the refrain, is the technical counterbalance to the emotional intensity of the first two movements. Brahms and Max Bruch were to imitate the ebullient good humor in the finale of their own Violin Concertos. &

One other reason for the initial rejection of Beethoven’s Concerto resides in the violin concertos of the Classical period. Like Mozart’s five concerti, these were modest – although elegant – in their requirements of the soloist. Unlike twentieth-century music lovers, who revere the music of centuries past more than contemporary music, the challenging Italian-style concerti of Vivaldi or Bach had long since become passé in nineteenth-century Vienna. Beethoven was virtually reinventing the genre, setting the stage for a rash of challenging virtuoso violin works by such performer-composers Niccoló Paganini that soon took Europe by storm.

Ottorino Respighi

Ottorino Respighi
Gli Uccelli (The Birds)

Ottorino Respighi was one of the most imaginative orchestrators of the first part of the twentieth century. While most of his musical studies were undertaken in Italy, he spent two crucial years in Russia where he took some lessons in orchestration with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. He developed a masterful technique in the use of instrumental colors and sonorities, firmly rooted in the late-romantic tradition. He maintained this style with only marginal influence from the revolutionary changes in music that occurred during his lifetime.

Respighi was a musical nationalist, keenly interested in reviving Italy’s musical heritage, especially its instrumental music. Beginning in 1906 he undertook to transcribe and arrange music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, editing the works of Claudio Monteverdi and Tomaso Antonio Vitali – although in an idiosyncratic manner anathema to modern musicological practices. In 1917 he published the first of his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, based on Italian and French lute music, mostly from the early seventeenth century. Indeed, most of Respighi’s works are based on the music of the past, the sources ranging from Gregorian chant (The Pines of Rome) and medieval dances (Trittico botticelliano) to Rossini occasional pieces (La boutique fantasque) and just about every Italian period in between. In 1927 he composed Gli uccelli, a five movement suite using eighteenth century keyboard pieces that were meant to evoke birdsongs. Composing such pieces had been a popular pastime since the Renaissance, the most well known of these musical birdsong collections is Le chant des oiseaux (The song of the birds) by Clement Janequin (1480-1558).

The most striking aspect of Respighi’s work is its sparkling orchestration. Although each of the movements begins by featuring a different solo instrument, they continue by incorporating stunning combinations of instrumental solos to create a kaleidoscope of orchestral color.

The opening movement, Prelude, begins with a festive ritornello (refrain),  then briefly introduces each of the birds to be featured in the succeeding movements. The second movement, The Dove, is a melancholy air for solo oboe, and later, solo violin, flute and clarinet, based on a tune by lutenist Jacques de Gallot (ca. 1670). Ironically, the dove, considered a symbol of love, fidelity and peace is in actual ornithological fact, a bad-tempered bird that tends to steal other birds’ mates.

The third movement, The Hen, is the most graphic and is based on a famous harpsichord piece by that name by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). It is a perfect description of scurrying, quarreling hens, with an indignant cock call – by a combined clarinet and muted trumpet – at the end. The fourth movement, The Nightingale, featuring a pair of flutes, is based on an anonymous 17th century English work describing the wood thrush.

The suite ends with The Cuckoo, based on the air by Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710). Respighi spins out a demonstration of the variety of ways one can incorporate the simple birdcall of a descending minor third into a complex melody. He then ties together the suite by returning to the opening ritornello, introducing it with the cuckoo’s simple two-note call.

Ralph Vaughan-Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending, Romance for Violin and Orchestra

“The first startling thing about our decision to do a VW weekend was the blank looks when we mentioned it…But not as startling as the reactions to the weekend itself. If I had a quid for every time I heard someone say ‘I never knew he wrote music like that’ I’d be as rich as…” writes Richard Morrison, chief music critic of the Times (London) of a weekend commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams – and this in the composer’s own backyard.

VW came from a distinguished family: his paternal grandfather was the first Judge of Common Pleas. His maternal grandparents were Josiah Wedgwood III and a sister of Charles Darwin. Although the family encouraged his youthful musical talents, they later disapproved of his choice of music as a career; VW prevailed, graduating with a Mus.B from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1894.

Vaughan Williams’ progress was slow and uncertain. He went to Berlin in 1897 to study with Max Bruch, and to Paris in 1908 to take lessons from Maurice Ravel. But he was drawn to English folksong and Elizabethan and Jacobean music, and his music became rooted in Tudor polyphony, uncovering that rich heritage for contemporaneous audiences. He also had a passion for English folk music; his collection of over 800 folksongs, on which he worked between 1903 and 1910 and his selection of the songs for The English Hymnal in 1906 helped set the stage for the future development of his musical language.

In his long, productive life – his last symphony was premiered just four months before his death at age 85 – VW practiced what he preached. He wrote music for numerous instrumental and vocal combinations, as well as for levels of sophistication and performing ability. Considered radical in his young days and a lifelong agnostic (despite his contributions to religious music), he believed that music was the birthright of every individual.

In his youth, Ralph Vaughan Williams studied the violin, an instrument he came to regard with special affection although he never fully mastered it. In 1914, considered a rising musical star just starting work on his Second (“London”) Symphony, he expressed his love for the instrument with The Lark Ascending, composed for the violinist Marie Hall. The outbreak of World War I indefinitely postponed the premiere until 1920, by which time Vaughan Williams had revised and re-orchestrated it. The work takes its title from a poem of the same name by George Meredith, the following extract of which appears in the score:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain or sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake…

For singing till his heaven fills,
`Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes.…

…Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
From its opening bars, there is a certain magic in the work. It presents the image of the soaring lark – “the wine which overflows” – in the non-metrical line of the solo violin against the more down-to-earth (metrically bound) orchestra – the “golden cup” – all in a grand musical arch.

After a few gentle introductory measures by the orchestra, the solo violin enters hesitantly with a five-note motive  reminiscent of bird song that becomes increasingly complex, a gentle but full cadenza – “And ever winging up and up.” The violin then breaks out in a lilting melody reminiscent of English folk song , which it almost seems to “teach” the orchestra while it takes off again in more embellishments. After a return to the opening cadenza, the tempo picks up as the orchestra, led by the flute and clarinet, introduces its own animated folk-like melody, which it “teaches” the violin . During the change of pace, the violin returns to its cadenza, this time accompanied by other bird-song images by the solo winds. The work winds down with a varied reprise of the first folk melody and ends pianissimo as it began, with another cadenza on the violin, fading gradually – “Till lost on his aerial rings” – out of sight and hearing.


Ascending Bird

Arr. Colin Jacobsen

In 1998, cellist Yo-Yo Ma initiated a multicultural project inspired by the old Silk Road, the trade route that connected China in the east, through central Asia and Iran, with the Middle East and hence to Europe. While the project – now called Silkroad and affiliated with Harvard University – encompasses many cultural and social fields, music has always been one of its mainstays and the Silk Road Ensemble one of its major projects.

Ascending Bird is a traditional Persian folk melody, recounting the mythical tale of a bird’s attempt to fly to the sun. After two failures, the bird succeeds in the third, shedding its physical body in the radiant embrace of the sun, perhaps a metaphor for spiritual transcendence.

American violinist and composer Colin Jacobsen, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, made arrangements of the melody for various instrument combinations.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016