Notes by Sam Wu, MNO Composition Fellow, and Warren Cohen, MNO Music Director, edited by Bob Altizer

Sam Wu

Sam Wu: The Building of a City (2019) ARIZONA PREMIERE

For millennia past, there existed a fishing village on the banks of the river Yangtze. As modernization transformed China, so too the village changed. Gone were the fishing boats and wooden structures the villagers called home. New concrete buildings took their place, housing migrant workers for nearby factories.

The village grew into a town, then a city. At one point, it was shrouded in smog; some mornings, even sunlight could not pierce through its polluted air. Toxic waste, dumped into the river, poisoned the very fish that fed the city.

Though industry had threatened the city’s environment, new technologies helped save it. Wind turbines and solar panels replaced coal factories; electric power replaced fossil fuels. Skyscrapers, built entirely out of glass, reached into the aether, inviting clouds to touch their hanging gardens. The sun now rises over a glistening city on the banks of the Yangtze, a protector of its surrounding forests, hills, and waters.

Eugène (Eugen) d’Albert: Cello Concerto in C Major, Op. 20 (1899)

Eugène d’Albert (1864-1932) was born in Scotland to parents of French, English and Italian ancestry,  and his first musical studies were in London. He was a descendant of the Italian composer Domenico Alberti, whose fame today comes from a type of accompanying pattern in music called an “Alberti bass” which was used extensively by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Yet, despite his origins and early training, d’Albert was a German nationalist who identified culturally and musical with Germany, even changing his first name from the French “Eugène” to the suitably Teutonic “Eugen.” As a young man d’Albert became a pianistic disciple of Franz Liszt, and spent his early adulthood as a highly successful touring virtuoso, famous for his extraordinary technique and temperament. Liszt considered him one of his greatest students. However, after about 1900 d’Albert focused on composition and played the piano only enough to keep himself and whatever family he had at the time fed. (He was married six times, had eight children, and died of a heart attack in Riga, Latvia while trying to get a quickie divorce from his last wife). His playing, amply documented on recordings, was famously erratic by the time he was able to record, but there is enough in them that suggests that he was once one of the greatest pianists who had ever lived, and it is as a pianist that his reputation largely rests today.

He never achieved anything like that success as a composer. He wrote twenty-one operas, but only one, Tiefland (Lowlands), is ever heard today – and at that, only rarely, and only in German speaking countries. Of his large body of instrumental music, only this Cello Concerto is heard even occasionally. It has maintained a position at the fringes of the repertoire largely because of the early recording of it by the great Galician cellist Emmanuel Feuermann (1904-1942). This recording was roundly admired and sold well enough that some cellists became familiar with the work, and from time to time it appears on concert programs. Certainly, Feuermann’s advocacy was a huge part of its survival; his performance brought out both the lyricism and virtuosity of the score in a way that made the case for it.

What to listen for

That said, on its own the Cello Concerto is a terrific work. The opening, with the cello playing a series of arpeggios over which the oboe introduces a beautiful melody, is a unique and striking start to a Concerto, and immediately grabs your attention.  The orchestration is careful and natural, with an unusually dominant wind section. The musical language is late 19th Century (the work was composed in 1899) and the debt to both Richard Wagner and Liszt is apparent, both in terms of musical ideas and form. Although the work is in three sections, they are played without a pause, and the three themes that are introduced early in the score form the basis for all the musical material in the twenty-minute work. However, in the manner of Liszt, the themes themselves are transformed, taking on different characters in the course of the work. The work does follow the classic fast-slow-fast structure of a Concerto however. To bring the work full circle, near the end the striking opening music returns and the work concludes with the arpeggios that started it.

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97 “Rhenish” (1851)

I. Lebhaft

II. Scherzo: Sehr mäßig (in C major)

III. Nicht schnell (in A major)

IV. Feierlich (in E major)

V. Lebhaft

German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote this Symphony in a short burst of creative activity in November and December of 1850. Although the name “Rhenish” was not added by the composer, it is known that some features of the Symphony were inspired by a vacation river cruise that he and his wife Clara – a noted composer and performer in her own right — took along the Rhine. He originally added subtitles to some of the movements referencing those inspirations, or muses, but later removed them. He feared that if people looked at the subtitles, they would hear the music in terms of the way they heard the inspiration, and would not actually listen to the music he’d written. Although he was not averse to people knowing that work was inspired by the trip, he thought it best to leave that inspiration vague.

The piece has several unusual features for a Symphony of its time, the first being that it is in five movements instead of the usual four. It’s generally agreed that this was inspired by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, also in five movements, and also a work inspired by nature. There are other parallels in the music of the two Symphonies, to the point that it seems that Schumann had used the structure and idea of the Pastoral as a take off point for the Rhenish. For example, in both works the fourth and fifth movements are connected, and the trombones only enter in the fourth movement. In Beethoven’s case the trombone entry is part of the dramatic storm scene, while Schumann rather cruelly expects the players to play one of the greatest trombone tunes in the symphonic repertoire after having sat silently for twenty minutes! In both cases, the trombone entry is vivid and exciting and a critical part of the geography of the music.

What to listen for

Musically, the Rhenish is very much a typical Schumann composition, with his characteristic harmonic and melodic features, his extraordinary rhythmic complexity (especially in the last movement) and his unusual and consistently innovative approach to formal organization. The orchestration of this work has been regularly criticized for being “too thick.” However, the miserable failure of every attempt to fix it show how wrong that is. For example, Gustav Mahler rescored the work to give it more transparency, but for every doubling of instruments he eliminated he had to change something else to make it work, and the end result does not illuminate anything new in the music. If anything, most musicians find the Mahler version oddly unsatisfying.

The largest single problem with the orchestration is not Schumann’s fault at all. Modern orchestral  performances usually use string sections that were much larger than the ones that Schumann had in mind, and this dense string sound undermines a great deal of the rhythmic bite and harmonic audacity of the music. The solution is simply to use string sections of approximately the size that Schumann had at his disposal, and to distribute the violins in the manner that Schumann expected, across the front of the stage, instead of placing the second violins next to the first, as many modern orchestras do. Remarkably, when you do what the composer asked, suddenly the problems with orchestration no longer exist. This is the approach MusicaNova is taking in this performance, which uses exactly the scoring  and stage layout that Schumann had at the premiere in 1851.