4: Program

orchestra in rehearsal

February 10, 2019


Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704)

Philip Glass (b. 1937)
String Quartet No. 5, arr. Z. Eastes
© 1991 Dunvagen Music Publishers Inc., used by permission

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)
Serenade for Strings, Op. 22

Brief program notes

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber

Most of us likely have little stomach for the pains and grief of war. Over the centuries and like journalists, composers have reflected upon all manner of human activity and have ‘reported out’ upon this world and the human condition. Composers from Jannequin to Tchaikovsky, from Beethoven to Britten have explored the implications of battle, both in victory and defeat. Biber’s Battalia is no different, though cast at a time when the reporting style, in retrospect, seems confusingly lighthearted (for starters, this work was dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine — that irony owing perhaps to a cultural accommodation to the daily infinity, yet numbing realities of the Thirty Years War as it ravaged 17th century Europe). Battalia, surely one of the most ingenious compositions of its time, is an inventive collection of brief, pointed movements that illustrate aspects of war: calls to courage, sighs of departure, galloping horses, even the battle itself. Mixed in is a remarkably cacaphonous quodlibet — to use a modern term, a ‘mashup’ of non-related melodies, in this case Polish and German folk songs. (Be assured that there exist examples of better behaved quodlibets, where all parts fit together neatly, even magically, as in the closing variation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations). We also hear a near-histrionic evocation of Mars, the god of war, for fife and drum (violin and prepared bass, in this instance); and a striking, crestfallen lament for the fallen and wounded.

Philip Glass
String Quartet No. 5

To date, New York composer Philip Glass has written six string quartets. Quartet No. 5 was commissioned in the early 1990s for the continuously cutting-edge, Bay Area-based Kronos Quartet. Glass has said, “I was thinking that I had really gone beyond the need to write a serious string quartet and that I could write a quartet that is about musicality, which in a certain way is the most serious subject.” Musicality. Indeed. The piece is perhaps best understood as a layering of multiple, overlapping planes  — solidly in the minimalist idiom. Viewed overall, as an architectural structure, the Quartet is powerful, expansive, universal. Like the Dvořák Serenade, later in the program, the work is circular – some ideas repeat across movements. The individual movements, played without pause, evoke gossamer yearnings; non-plussed stability; ritualist repetitions; gently waving calm; and full-throated churnings. At the cellular level, two-, three-, and four-note gestures generate constant interior energy, perhaps like our own blood systems.

While Glass wrote a piece for four players, it has since been presented in alternate forms (a bit of context here, quartets of Beethoven and Shostakovich have also been adapted for string orchestra). For today’s reading, Glass’ publishing company, Dunvagen, approved of this setting. In addition to slight permutations not possible in the original (solo vs. orchestra passages, or certain section divisions), a string bass part has been constructed, following the outlines of the cello part.

Antonin Dvořák
Serenade for Strings, Op. 22

Antonin Dvořák was married in 1873, and became a father (to a son) in 1874, the same year he won the lucrative Austrian State Prize (equivalent to about $10,000 today), awarded to promising and needy artists. Prize jurist Johannes Brahms had encouraged the younger Dvořák, aniticipating future success, and apparently influenced the jury to invest. The resultant burst of energy, in 1875, produced a remarkable list of compositions, all of which helped rocket Dvořák toward international success, yet to be seen for a composer outside ‘central Europe.’ That 1875 list includes his second string quartet, his fifth symphony, his first piano trio and quartet, the opera Vanda, and a set of 20 Moravian Duets. Also on the list? The Serenade, one of his most beautiful and inviting works, composed in just twelve days! The Serenade lifts and lilts through five stunning movements, finally circling back to the calm and repose of the Serenade’s opening bars.

     Read this memory from a violinist in the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, as he spoke about performing the Serenade, “When I was a violin student at age seven, my first teacher said, ‘If you wish to capture the heart of your audience, you should start with a piece of Bohemian music’.” As we hope you will understand today, that teacher was correct.

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