Performances Not to Miss: Out of the mainstream
This is part of a weekly series of columns devoted to a brief look ahead at the weekend's principal Tanglewood concerts.
The history of Western music is strongly focused on its Austro-German contributions, largely ignoring those by composers of other nationalities. Reading the standard music histories, one would think that Classical music began with Haydn, continued with Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, and Mahler, and was then given its "coup de grace" by the iconoclasts Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. But, as always, the reality is more interesting.
This apparent hegemony was actually shot through with enlivening and contrasting colors by the nineteenth-century nationalist movement across Europe, which led countries to shake off foreign dominance, express their own independence, and celebrate their own cultures. The best-known examples of composers following this trend are Dvorak (from Bohemia, later a constituent part of Czechoslovakia — now the Czech Republic), Sibelius (from Finland), Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov (from Russia) and Grieg (from Norway). But other countries also produced representative composers, including England and France, and then, later of course, the United States.
This weekend's concerts at Tanglewood are a feast of national contributions from outside the Austro-German sphere. Friday's concert highlights music from France, including the Cello Concerto No. 1 of Saint-Saens, Debussy's "La Mer," and Ravel's "La Valse." The Cello Concerto dates from 1872, when Saint-Saens was 37, and is considered his first great success. It remains one of the most highly regarded cello concertos in the repertoire and is by turns declamatory and lyrical. It imposes great demands on the soloist but is seductive to all audiences. Debussy's "La Mer" (1905) is subtitled "Three Symphonic Sketches," and it portrays the sea in three of its most striking moods: gradually awakening from dawn to midday, the play of the waves, and a dialogue between the wind and the sea.
Ravel's "La Valse" comes from 1920. It lays out a series of exquisitely orchestrated waltzes and has been variously interpreted as celebrating the world of elegant society by depiction of "an immense hall in an imperial palace in 1855 peopled with a whirling crowd of waltzing couples" and as lamenting the loss of that world, destroyed by the First World War.
Was Stravinsky Russian or French? He was born in St. Petersburg (though he and his family spoke French, as did most upper- and middle-class Russians), lived in France for twenty years (1920-1940), and then moved to the United States, where he lived until his death in 1971. Stravinsky's reputation was made in Paris, where the premieres of his ballets, "The Firebird," "Petrushka," and "The Rite of Spring" were given between 1910 and 1913. "Petrushka," which is to be performed on Sunday afternoon, displays a scintillating score, and its depiction of a luckless puppet living through the travails of love and life mirrors the challenges of the human spirit.
Sunday afternoon also brings America into the picture, with the jazzy symphonic world of George Gershwin - two concert works for solo piano and orchestra: his Piano Concerto and the Variations on the song "I Got Rhythm." The song itself is very clever: its chord progression served as the basis for countless other jazz tunes, while its rhythm is both catchy and unpredictable.
On Saturday night at Tanglewood, England's first representative composer since Elizabethan times is featured. This is Edward Elgar, whose "Enigma Variations" of 1899 immediately catapulted him to international fame. The work has two enigmas, only one of which has been solved. Each movement is labeled with a set of capital letters, which have been unraveled to show that they indicate people important to Elgar — his wife, his friends and acquaintances. But the second enigma, the hidden melody upon which Elgar's opening theme is based, remains unresolved. It must have something to do with the long falling swoops in the melody or perhaps with the surprise ending of this yearning tune with a major chord. When you figure it out at the concert on Saturday, please let me know the answer.
Jeremy Yudkin is Professor of Music at Boston University. He gives pre-concert talks for Tanglewood every Friday at 2:30 p.m. and every Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Lenox Library.
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