MAY 10th, 2018 at 1:30 pm
Anne Louise-Turgeon and Edward Turgeon: one piano, four hands
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Andante and Variations in G Major, K. 501
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Fantaisie in F Minor, D. 940
Allegro ma molto moderato
Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)
Prélude à la nuit
Malagueña – Assez vif
Habanera – Assez lent d’un rythme las
Feria – Assez animé
Valery Gavrilin (1939 – 1999)
At the Coachman’s Corner
Having a Dream
Driving the Troika
Antonin Dvorak (1841 – 1904)
Op. 72 No. 1, in B Major
Op. 72 No. 5, in B-flat Minor
Op. 46 No. 8, in G Minor
George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)
Rhapsody in Blue
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Andante and Variations in G Major, K. 501
During his 1764-65 trip to London, eight-year-old Mozart composed his first piano duet. It is said that during this visit he was introduced to J.C. Bach, and sat in his lap as they improvised together at the keyboard.
There are surviving sketches for K. 501, written in 1786, that indicate that the composer originally planned it for piano duo (two pianos, two players), but decided to publish it instead for piano duet (one piano, four hands). The popularity of this latter genre was evident from the late 18th to early 20th century, as a form of social interaction as well as musical entertainment, at a time when there was a piano in every home of the educated. Publishers provided for all levels of ability: from easy folk song duets, to popular dance music, to arrangements of major composers’ symphonies and string quartets. It has been suggested that piano duet books were the computer games of the past, though it should be noted that many people today continue to enjoy the pastime, including some duet enthusiasts right here in Oakmont!
Franz Schubert: Fantaisie in F Minor, D. 940
The last year of Schubert’s tragically short life produced a prodigious number of masterpieces, including the Fantaisie D. 940. Much of the composer’s large output of four-hand piano music was intended for home (not public) performance, and was often written for his students. But D. 940 is quite another story: it requires topnotch players, and is generally considered one of his most profound works. He started it in January, 1828, then put it aside, completing it in April. On May 9 of that year he performed it with his good friend Franz Lachner, just six months before his death. It is dedicated to Countess Karoline Esterházy, a former pupil, with whom Schubert had long been in unrequited love.
Maurice Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole
Ravel was born in the French Pyrenees, just a few miles from the Spanish border. The family—his mother of Basque origin and his father Swiss—moved to Paris when Ravel was an infant. He had not yet set foot in Spain when, just after leaving the Paris Conservatory in 1895, he wrote Habanera for two pianos. It was his first work to be performed publicly. Debussy was in the audience and admired the piece, asking to borrow the score. Five years later, a rift developed between the two, when Debussy’s Night in Granada seemed to Ravel to seriously mimic his own earlier composition.
Ravel’s first large orchestral work was Rapsodie espagnole, written mostly in 1907. It is in four brief movements, the third of which is the composer’s orchestration of his earlier piano duo Habanera. The premiere in 1908 was well received. But for one rowdy fan in the balcony, the eminent French composer Florent Schmitt, the applause from the expensive seats below was not sufficiently vociferous. At the end of the Malagueña, he yelled, “Play it again for the people downstairs who have not understood it!” The movement was indeed repeated. At the Rapsodie’s end, the irrepressible Schmitt shouted, “If it had been something by Wagner you would have found it very beautiful!”
Valery Gavrilin: Sketches
Valery Gavrilin, born in 1939 in Vologda, suffered a difficult childhood. His father was killed in the Siege of Leningrad when the boy was just three. Seven years later, his mother was jailed and Gavrilin was sent to an orphanage. A teacher there recognized his musical talent and arranged for him to study at the Leningrad Conservatory, where he earned degrees in composition and musicology. In the 1960s he became involved in the so-called “neo-folklore wave,” particularly as related to Russian song.
Sketches is a group of 18 pieces for four-hand piano. The titles of the five to be heard on today’s program are quite straightforward, but Driving the Troika stumped me. Here’s what I found (unattributed) on the Internet: “A well-known symbol of Russia, and a wild and exciting way to travel, the troika is a unique three-horse driving combination which connects the horses to sleighs, carts, or covered wagons. The ride has been recognized as the most spirited, fun, and fastest way to travel (up to 50 kilometers an hour!) and the sensations it evokes are in tune with the Russian personality and spirit.”
Antonin Dvorak: Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 and Op. 72
Before his first set of Slavonic Dances (Op. 46), Dvorak was relatively unknown. When Brahms recommended him to his own German publisher, Simrock, Dvorak enjoyed a boost in both stature and fortune. Simrock was interested in some dance-related music. Not knowing how to proceed, Dvorak looked to Brahms’ popular Hungarian Dances for inspiration. But there was a distinct difference: Brahms used actual Hungarian folk tunes, but Dvorak borrowed only the rhythms of Slavic music, writing melodies that are entirely original. Op. 46, originally for four-hand piano and later orchestrated by the composer, was a huge hit.
Fast forward seven years, to 1885. Dvorak submits his Symphony No. 7 to Fritz Simrock, who offends him with an offer of half his usual fee, and also indicates that what he really would prefer is another set of Slavonic Dances. The impending impasse is partly resolved when Dvorak offers to write a second set of Dances (Op. 72), and Simrock agrees to pay full fare for the new symphony. However, Simrock insists that in the printed score the composer’s name should appear as the German “Anton” rather than the Czech “Antonin.” Another insult! The neutral abbreviation “Ant.” is the eventual compromise. The following year sees the publication of the four-hand piano version of the Slavonic Dances Op. 72, soon followed by the composer’s orchestrated version, another winner for both Dvorak and Simrock.
George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
On the evening of Jan. 3, 1924, George Gershwin and his brother Ira were hanging out at a New York pool hall, George playing pool and Ira absorbed in that day’s New York Tribune. Ira’s eye caught a headline “Whiteman Judges Named; Committee Will Decide ‘What is American Music?’ ” The news release described a concert to be presented by bandleader Paul Whiteman just five weeks later, with a judging committee consisting of pianist/composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, violinists Jascha Heifetz and Efrem Zimbalist, and soprano Alma Gluck. (Their presence would turn out to be merely a publicity stunt, with no reporting of any verdict.) Victor Herbert and Irving Berlin were said to be composing works specifically for this occasion, but it was the last sentence of the article that was the shocker to both brothers: “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto.”
George, unaware of any such project, called Whiteman the next day to protest. The bandleader, who came up with this venture mostly to showcase himself and his band, somehow persuaded George to write the work. On such short notice, it couldn’t be a full-fledged concerto, but would rather be a shorter, free-form piece. And Whiteman promised the services of his band’s staff arranger, the composer Ferde Grofé, to orchestrate the piece, a skill that 24-year-old George lacked. Grofé later recalled, “I practically lived in their uptown Amsterdam and 100th St. apartment … George and Ira had a back room where there was an upright piano, and that is where Rhapsody in Blue grew into being.”
It took George about a month to compose the piece, for two pianos (one the solo part, the other to become the band accompaniment). Traveling to Boston for the premiere of his about-to-open musical Sweet Littlie Devil, he reported, “On the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer … I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody … a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” It was Ira Gershwin who thought of the name for the work. He had seen an exhibition of paintings by James Whistler, who was given to color-related titles for his art (such as Arrangement in Gray and Black, better known later as Whistler’s Mother). “Blue,” of course, suggests “blues” and jazz.
The late composer Jonathan Kramer, who also wrote superb, insightful program notes, had this to say about the Rhapsody in Blue: “Gershwin’s piece was hardly the first instance of symphonic jazz. Many European composers—including Stravinsky, Milhaud and Ravel—had succumbed to the influence of what was for them an exotic, intoxicating musical style. At the time he wrote the rhapsody, Gershwin was unaware of most of this music. Hence his music was quite different from that of his European counterparts. While they were adopting a foreign voice, Gershwin spoke American popular music as a native. For them, symphonic music was the comfortable home into which they could invite jazz as a visitor. For Gershwin, the opposite was true. He was a composer of songs and shows, for whom American pop was natural but symphonic form was foreign.”