Program Notes for October 2016

Mason Bates:
Ode

American composer, Mason Bates, was born on January 23, 1977 and raised in Richmond, VA, His music has received wide-spread acclaim and frequent performances throughout the concert world, which recently has led him to be named the Mead Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He holds the Bachelor of Arts degree in music composition and English literature from the Columbia University-Juilliard School Exchange Program. His composition teachers included John Corigliano, David Del Tredici, and Samuel Adler. He received his PhD in composition in 2008 from the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied with Edmund Campion. In addition to his work as a composer, he is a disc jockey and techno artist. His best known works include Alternative Energy, Liquid Interface, a water symphony commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra. Ode was composed in 2011 in fulfillment of a commission from the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. The work is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 Eb clarinet, 2 Bb clarinets (2. doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C (1.2. doubling slide whistle), 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, a large array of percussion instruments (including an unloaded pump shotgun), piano, harp, and strings. Robert Moody has long associated himself as an advocate of Bates. Rusty Air in Carolina was composed in 2005-06 for Robert Moody in honor of his appointment as Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony and received its world premiere here in May 2006. It was repeated in November of 2015. These concerts mark the Winston-Salem premiere of Ode.

No work of Western art music has been subjected to a greater number of interpretations than Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9. Each interpretation, in turn, has been a kind of commentary that reflects the temper of its time. Mason Bates’ Ode is one of the most recent examples of this historical phenomenon. The composer provides his own following notes for Ode:

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is one of the rare works of the repertoire that has attained, in addition to its vaulted musical status, a cultural and even political significance. The exalted setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” forever associated the work with a hope for peace and brotherhood, and generations of musicians have turned to the work at historic moments as the most universal expression of peace.

But the hope for peace so magnificently expressed in Beethoven’s final symphony – written during a relative calm in the 19th Century – was ultimately frustrated by the events of the 20th Century. Two world wars and many tragedies later, Beethoven’s great hope is needed as much as ever. But one wonders, with an eye to events past and present, whether such a hope can ever be fulfilled.

The piece begins as if in a dream, with fragments of the “Ode to Joy” floating over illusory harmonies in the orchestra, and soon focuses on the most characteristic fragment – the Ode’s first three notes. This motif drives the transformation that follows – from a hopeful world of lyricism into a menacing, destructive fanfare of war. Along the way, we get a glimpse of the martial music of the Ninth’s last movement, which begins harmlessly but soon spins out of control. In the aftermath of the ensuing explosion – which, like weapons of mass destruction, leaves very little standing – a pulsating harmonic world floats downwards. It is the harmonies of the work’s beginning, but in reverse, finally ending with the opening chord – an open fifth. Having begun with the theme that ends Beethoven’s symphony, the work ends with his beginning: an uncertain world of harmonic ambiguity, articulated by a trembling in the strings – as we wait for something to happen.

A critic for the Arizona Republic wrote the following:

Mason Bates’ Ode, commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony, takes the argument of the Beethoven and turns it backward, beginning with the joy and progressing back to the music of the first movement, and in so doing, chronicling how the world has developed since the Choral Symphony was written in 1824: war on war, destruction on destruction and the bloodiest century in history. Bates used part of the military march from the Beethoven to spin into the cacophonous climaxes that mimic the noise of war and leaves us with an ambivalent ending. So that when the Beethoven begins, and plays the music in the proper order, we have a different take on it.”

Program Note by David B. Levy/Mason Bates, © 2016/2011

Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (“Choral”)

One of history’s pivotal composers, Ludwig van Beethoven was born on December 15 or 16, 1770 in Bonn, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. His Ninth Symphony, op. 125 was composed over a period of many years, most intensely between 1822 and 1824, culminating in its premiere in Vienna’s Kärtnertortheater on May 7, 1824. It is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, timpani, and strings.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has acquired a status of universal approbation unmatched in the symphonic repertory. The British affectionately call Beethoven’s Ninth the “Choral” Symphony, while the Japanese, who each December present well over one hundred performances of it, have dubbed the work “Daiku” (“Big Nine”). It is a mainstay of concert halls and music festivals throughout the world. Wagner saw fit to perform it when he laid the cornerstone of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1872. In China, revolutionary students gathered in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989 played its finale through loudspeakers to bolster their spirits. Later the same year, in Berlin Leonard Bernstein led a ceremonious performance of it, changing Schiller’s “Freude” (Joy) to “Freiheit” (Freedom) in symbolic recognition of the razing of the Wall.

The Ninth is, at the same time, one of Beethoven’s most perplexing compositions–a work that remains one of the world’s most revered musical masterpieces, but which is not without its problematic side. Its musical syntax is a curious mixture of complexity and simplicity, and over the years critics have seen fit to assail it on both counts. Virtually no composer writing after Beethoven could escape the Ninth’s immense shadow. Stemming as it did from a particular time and circumstance–Vienna during the Vormärz –with all the musical, social, and cultural associations of that period, the Ninth Symphony has emerged as ceremonial piece par excellence, befitting artistic and political summitry, as well as populist symbol for freedom-loving citizens from Beijing to Berlin. The Ninth Symphony is more than a monument of Western music: it is a cultural icon.

Beethoven’s last symphony represents the culmination of two discrete projects. The most immediate one was the fulfillment of a commission for a new symphony tendered by the Philharmonic Society of London in 1822, itself the partial satisfaction of an earlier request from the Society for two new symphonies. The other project dates back to 1792, the year in which we have the first evidence of Beethoven’s interest in setting Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem, An die Freude, to music. The joining of these separate enterprises into the work known as the Ninth Symphony did not occur until relatively late in the symphony’s evolution. First performed in Vienna on 7 May 1824, the Ninth Symphony has had an impact that is impossible to measure fully.

Indeed, the work itself seems immeasurable. Its opening Allegro un poco maestoso is far from the longest first movement that Beethoven wrote, yet its scale is greater than any other. One reason for this lies in the density of its content. From a barely audible murmur, fragments in the strings grow in speed and intensity as they coalesce to form the titanic first theme. The time scale in which this occurs is small, but its implication is immense. Never before, and rarely since, has such force ever been unleashed in music. The opening of the movement is unique, and all subsequent imitations of it (Bruckner and Wagner) were done so in fully self-conscious homage to Beethoven. Equally cataclysmic in its impact is the explosion in D major that launches the movement’s recapitulation. The powerful funereal peroration from the coda also has also been imitated–most notably by Mahler–but never equaled. The first movement of the Ninth Symphony is tragedy writ large.

The scherzo, which is placed as the second movement, offers little relief. Tragedy is replayed here as farce as even the kettledrums hammer out its distinctive three-note dotted motif. After a full-scale treatment of the Molto vivace in sonata form, replete with a contrapuntal exposition and metrical trickery in the development section, the pastoral trio in D major offers the first true moment of respite. As many listeners are aware, scherzo is the Italian word for joke. But those familiar with Beethoven know that humor has its dark side, and the scherzo of the Ninth Symphony is one of the grimmest ever penned. The final “joke” of this movement comes in its coda, where Beethoven threatens to repeat the trio section, only to thwart our expectation with an abrupt ending.

The Adagio molto e cantabile third movement dwells in the realm of pure melody. Aestheticians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were fond of making a distinction between the “sublime” (lofty) and the “beautiful” in art. If the first two movements are representative of the former, the third movement of the Ninth Symphony surely is an exemplar of the latter. The movement is cast as a rondo with varied reprises for each of its two themes. A distinguishing characteristic of the first theme is the woodwind echo that occurs at the end of each phrase of the hymnal theme played by the strings, a feature that is retained in each of its returns. The second theme is a contrasting Andante moderato in triple meter. The literal midpoint of the movement (and, in fact, the entire symphony) is its ethereally calm development section, where the color of the woodwinds dominate its landscape. The fourth horn emerges out of this heavenly serenity with a celebrated passage, culminating in an unaccompanied scale. Listeners are urged to notice how this instrument continues to play a prominent role throughout the remainder of the movement.

The onset of the finale rudely shatters the calm with a glancing dissonance and a passage that Wagner dubbed the “horror fanfare” (Schreckensfanfare). Evidence from Beethoven’s sketches reveal that Beethoven had considerable difficulty effecting a transition from the purely instrumental opening movements to the choral part of the finale. How, after all, does one introduce an element that never before had belonged to a genre? Using every bit of his ingenuity, and bringing his experience gained from previous works to bear (the “Choral” Fantasy and several piano sonatas), Beethoven hit upon the idea of using instrumental recitative–played here by the cellos and contrabasses–as a conduit from the realm of the instrumental to that of the vocal. The instrumental recitative is a superbly effective device, used as a link between fragmented reminiscences from the previous movements.

The purpose of these thematic recollections has been interpreted in various ways by analysts. Most writers suggest that the recitative serves as a rebuff of the spirit of these earlier movements, each of which in turn is spurned by the cellos and basses until the famous “Joy” melody is presented. But there is another possible reason why Beethoven elected to bring back these themes, a reason that is as much prospective as retrospective. The elaborate multi-sectional finale is, in fact, an entire four-movement symphonic structure in miniature. Viewed from this perspective, the episode of recitative and recollection is an introductory prefiguration of the entire finale.

The presentation of the “Joy” theme in variations (both instrumental and vocal) comprises the gesture of a first “movement.” The portions of Schiller’s An die Freude used in this part are the ones that are most overtly profane or pagan in spirit. This is followed by the “Turkish” music as a kind of scherzo, which in turn yields to a solemn slow “movement” (“Seid umschlungen, Millionen”). This third section devotes itself to the most overtly sacred parts of the poem. The re-entry of the “Turkish” percussion movements marks the onset of the “finale,” where Beethoven joins together the profane and the sacred in a symbolic marriage of Athens and Jerusalem. Joy serves as the agent through which “all men become brothers.”

Notes by David B. Levy © 2008/2016

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