Masterworks 1Zoltán Kodály 1882-1967

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
Dances of Galanta

Composers have always loved to integrate folk melodies into their works both for popular appeal and to show their ability to manipulate a simple tune. The practice was already common in the Middle Ages. However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they often made the mistake of equating the popular music of the day with authentic traditional folk melodies. The melodies that Brahms and Liszt used in their Hungarian dances and rhapsodies, for example, were not indigenous melodies, but were in reality the popular street and café music of their time – often played by Roma (Gypsy) bands.

Zoltán Kodály and his colleague Béla Bartók, both pioneers of modern ethnomusicology, were among the first (in 1907) to use the newfangled invention, the wax cylinder recorder, to collect folk melodies at their source. They traveled extensively to the most rural backwaters of Central and Eastern Europe to collect their examples and were careful to authenticate their research. Critical to their systematic approach was to seek the variations in music and text from different locales, in the attempt to figure out the origin of the melodies and follow the geographical spread of both music and words. They avoided one of the great pitfalls in authenticating folk music, recognizing the fact that the simpler the melody, the greater the possibility that similar ones arose independently and were not necessarily derived from a common source. Like Bartók, Kodály used many of the collected folk melodies as themes for his compositions. Of the two, Kodály was the more conservative and the more Romantic. While his international reputation is generally overshadowed by that of Bartók, his music has become a national treasure in his native Hungary.

Kodály’s ethno-musicological research notwithstanding, the themes for Dances of Galánta, first performed in 1933 for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, did indeed originate from street and café music. Galánta, a small town now in Slovakia, was part of Hungary when Kodály lived there as a child. In the eighteenth century Galánta had been a center of sophisticated Roma musicians who performed from notated scores, rather than from memory, and played in the orchestras of the gentry. Although their fame had waned by Kodály’s time, the composer wanted to revive the old tradition. The themes for Dances of Galánta came from a historical collection, Selected Hungarian National Dances of various Gypsy from Galánta.

Kodály selected five different melodies and rhythms, giving them a brilliant orchestral dressing that provided a special showcase for the upper winds. The five dances employ different modes, themes and rhythms, but they are strung together in such a way that the final measures of one dance serve as an introduction to the next. The opening dance begins with a long introduction that has the effect of a warm-up or flexing of musical muscles. Example 1 The first three dances feature an orchestral soloist; in the first movement, the clarinet introduces a slow modal theme that will reappear in later movements to unify the set. Example 2 The second dance features the flute and is faster and more flowing than the first Example 3 but returns to the theme from the first dance, finally blending seamlessly into the third, which features the oboe Example 4 and contains a dialogue between the upper winds and strings. The fourth dance picks up in tempo and pits the violins against the upper winds in a kind of contest as the dance becomes wilder and wilder. Example 5

Suddenly everything shifts gear with a new slower, almost humorous, melody in the lower brass and then in the clarinet, Example 6 slipping into the final dance. Here again the tempo is fast, with the theme bouncing around the entire orchestra and including quotes from the previous dances. Example 7 A long pause nostalgically brings back the refrain in the upper winds, ending with a cadenza for clarinet “rudely” interrupted by the rest of the orchestra for a rousing conclusion.

Dmitry Shostakovich 1906-1975

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No. 2 in C-sharp minor, Op. 129

For most of his creative life, Dmitry Shostakovich fought a running battle with the Soviet bureaucracy, in official favor one day, vilified the next. In later years he recalled that in the late 1930s he was so certain that he was to be arrested that he slept with a packed suitcase near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up they would not disturb the rest of the family. He expressed his outrage and fears in his music, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly.

But by 1967, when he composed the Violin Concerto No. 2 as a 60th birthday gift for his friend, the violinist David Oistrakh, the artistic/political climate had softened; now he fought with his own body to stay alive. A year earlier, he had a heart attack and his health – never robust – deteriorated significantly. He also suffered from a slowly progressive neurological disease similar to ALS (Lou Gehrig disease), which curtailed his piano playing and made it difficult for him to walk. His music from thereon took on a melancholy, introspective character.

Shostakovich’s first Violin Concerto was a “Symphonic Concerto” showing greater kinship with Brahms' concertos rather than the usual Russian virtuosic showpieces. The Second, by contrast, is more sparsely orchestrated and more in the virtuoso Classical tradition. The first two movements express unmitigated anguish with angry interjections, while the third starts cheerfully, but soon reverts to the mood of the beginning, although at a faster pace. Shostakovich accentuates the violin’s prominence by opening every movement as a solo. There is also a cadenza in every the movement – if not always in the customary locations. The finale explores every aspect of the violin’s – and violinist’s – capability.

The Concerto opens with a mournful descending chromatic theme by the solo violin. Example 1 This theme, in fact, is what the concerto is all about. Every subsequent melody can be played in counterpoint against it. Example 2 Even when the tempo gradually increases into a second theme with a change of texture and mood, the toggling fourths of the countermelody persist. Example 3 This theme introduces one important new motive, actually a typical Shostakovich rhythmic device, three notes played short-short-long. Example 4 This rhythm recurs throughout the Symphony, sometimes in augmentation (slower), sometimes in diminution (faster). Example 5

While the Symphony is a clearly introspective work, Shostakovich devotes a few seconds to the traditional sounds of his native Russia. Example 6 Never one to completely eschew traditional formal structures, Shostakovich retains the conventional sonata form, developing the various motives of the theme and its contrapuntal accompaniments. Example 7 The movement concludes in a halting, dying whisper, gradually reducing the various motives to the short-short-long rhythm. Example 8

The second movement is a long, brooding elegy, much in the mood of the composer’s late symphonic slow movements. Shostakovich retains the conventional ABA structure for slow movements, but that’s where the similarity ends. The violin begins with a dirge-like melody in its lowest register, which is entirely through composed (without repeats) for the duration of the A section. Example 9 As it progresses, it takes up sinuously contrapuntal duets with solo winds: flute, clarinet Example 10 and horn. In the B section – actually a cadenza – the mood mirrors the abrupt mood change in the preceding movement, something of a combination of anger and desperation, Example 11 after which the soloist returns to a varied version of the A section.

The finale follows without pause, the soloist providing a mini-cadenza as a transition. Example 12 Then, with one of the composer’s signature high woodwind shrieks, the rondo commences (note, with the short-short-long figure in diminution). Example 13 Shostakovich’s orchestral finales have frequently been call “circus music,” and this is no exception. But underlying the moments of laugh-out-loud humor is a sardonic bitterness, which reveals itself in the both the dissonance and the challenges to the violinist. The passages between the statements of the rondo present a more melancholy face, Example 14 while each repetition of the rondo theme being significantly and elaborately varied. Example 15 The coda speaks for itself. Example 16

Antonin Dvořák 1841-1904

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88

Given his place as one of the foremost composers of the nineteenth century, Antonín Dvořák was something of a late bloomer, but not for want of musical talent and promise. Dvořák’s father was a butcher and had expected his son to go into the family trade. Only after his uncle had agreed to finance the boy’s musical education was he able to follow his passion for music. Trained as a church organist, his first job was as a performer, playing principal viola in Prague’s new Provincial Theatre Orchestra. During this time, he practiced composition, producing songs, symphonies and entire operas but achieved no recognition until he was in his 30s.

After winning national prizes for several years in the 1870s, however, his work came to the attention of Johannes Brahms, who gave him his first real break. The older composer, whose reputation was at its height, promoted Dvořák to his own publisher, Simrock, who in turn offered Dvořák his first commission, the Op. 46 set of Slavonic Dances. Brahms and the music critic Eduard Hanslick urged him to move to Vienna, but Dvořák’s love for his native soil kept him in Prague. Like his older nationalist compatriot Bedrich Smetana, he freely incorporated folk elements into his music, utilizing characteristic peasant rhythms and melodic motives but never actually quoting entire folk melodies. Dvořák was never happier than when he could work in a simple rural environment with its Czech language and customs.

It was in just such surroundings that Dvořák composed the Symphony No. 8 in a white heat in 1889. He began sketching it on August 26, finished the orchestration on November 8 and premiered it in Prague in February the following year. More than his other symphonies, it reflects his love for his native culture and is the most “national” of his nine symphonies.

By the time he composed the Eighth Symphony, Dvořák was well known and respected, but he nevertheless had problems publishing it. Berlin’s prestigious publisher Simrock, Dvořák’s publisher since 1878, saw quicker profits in short piano pieces – more Slavonic Dances, chamber music and songs – and offered a trifling sum for the Symphony. As a result, it was known for a long time as his “English Symphony” because it was published by London’s Novello, who paid the composer handsomely for larger works.

The Symphony constantly shifts between major and minor modes, yet its predominant themes feature the flute and are reminiscent of birdsong. It opens in a minor mode with a solemn introduction for cellos and the lower winds, not unlike a funeral march. Example 1 This contrasts with the cheery flute melody that dominates the movement, Example 2 although the solemn introduction reappears twice, once unchanged and the second time brighter with the full orchestra and in a higher register. Always overflowing with melodic inspiration, Dvořák infuses his exposition with four more themes, the most important of them a duet for two flutes. Example 3 But, as if these six weren't enough, he adds a new flute theme in the development section. Example 4

The slow movement, the longest and most complex of the four, creates a particular kind of tension, both musical and emotional. It begins with what might best be described as a recitative for orchestra, at once brooding and tranquil. Example 5 The long opening, sometimes discursive, sometimes halting, consists of numerous motivic fragments developed throughout the movement – including a bird call heard first in the flute and oboe Example 6 – resolving finally into the movement’s single full-fledged melody. Example 7 The melody, which appears only twice in its entirety, is the resolution of the tonally unstable material of the opening; it is the buildup to it that creates the musical tension. However, Dvořák does not linger on the sunny optimism of this melody, returning to the more passionate, tonally unstable material in which he further develops his expansive collection of motivic ideas. Example 8 After several more mood swings, including a passionate climax initiated by the brasses, Example 9 it is the bird call motive – perhaps representing the calming power of nature – that has the final say.

The Scherzo is a sad, waltz-like peasant dance with a nostalgic woodwind melody. Example 10 After the Trio, a lovely waltz featuring the solo oboe, Example 11 Dvořák embellishes the scherzo melody instead of repeating it exactly. The lovely Trio, a gentle waltz featuring the solo oboe, is also used for the coda, but at double the tempo and in duple time, something Brahms did in his Second Symphony. Example 12

The Finale continues the Symphony's tendency to shift moods. It opens with a trumpet fanfare theme. Example 13 Dvořáks transforms it into a slow dance tune, Example 14 writes a variation then into a rousing peasant dance. The dance contains an unusual feature, a resounding trill for the entire horn section, a device encountered nowhere else in the 19th century repertory. Example 15 Towards the middle of the movement the tune undergoes a series of variations, especially emphasizing the winds, in which Dvořák demonstrates the infinite possibilities of dance variations in such a simple melody. The movement ends in a wild and rambunctious coda.

Program notes copyright by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn