The Chairman Dances
Duration ca. 12 minutes
Scored for 2 flutes and 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, harp, and strings
Winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 1995 and the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in music, John Adams is the most prominent and frequently performed American composer of his generation. More impressively, his work has won over many listeners who normally approach new music with some skepticism. Colorful, tremendously energetic, and accessible in the best sense of that term, Adams’ pieces draw on the virtues of different musical traditions: the expansive sonic architecture of the classical masters, the tonal sophistication of 20th-century composers, the rhythmic drive and momentum of American popular music, the shimmering textures of the so-called “minimalist” school, and the delight in new discoveries that has always characterized the American avant-garde.
Adams’ breakthrough composition, the one that brought him international attention, was his opera Nixon in China. Completed in 1987 after two years of work, Nixon in China imagines in fantastical, sometimes surreal, terms the historic 1972 visit of the 37th President to the People’s Republic of China and his meeting with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.
At the time he had begun working on the opera, Adams also was obligated to fulfill a commission from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for a new orchestral piece. Engrossed in the sound-world and mise en scène of Nixon in China, he wrote a “Foxtrot for Orchestra” that he originally planned to include in the opera’s third act. This music, The Chairman Dances, ended up being, in the composer’s words, “an out-take” from Nixon in China, but it has acquired a life of its own as a concert piece.
The scene for which The Chairman Dances was conceived centers, Adams explains, “on Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing, the fabled ‘Madame Mao,’ firebrand, revolutionary executioner, architect of China’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, and (a fact not universally realized) a former Shanghai movie actress. In the surreal final scene of the opera, she interrupts the tired formalities of a state banquet, disrupts the slow moving protocol, and invites the Chairman, who is present only as a gigantic forty-foot portrait on the wall, to ‘come down, old man, and dance.’ The music takes full cognizance of her past as a movie actress. Themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at other times bravura and bounding, ride above in bustling fabric of energized motives.”
Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)
Duration ca. 20 minutes
Scored for 3 flutes and 2 piccolos, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, celesta, harp, strings, and solo soprano
Richard Strauss enjoyed a long, productive career, and he devoted himself to different genres of music at different times in his life. As a young composer in the late-1880s and 1890s, Strauss wrote a series of famous orchestral poems that includes Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, and Thus Spake Zarathustra, all of which enjoy prominent places in today’s orchestral repertory. Later, he turned to the theater, creating music for plays, ballets, and especially opera. Among the latter compositions are such enduring works as Salome and Der Rosenkavalier.
But one compositional activity claimed Strauss’s attention throughout his life, from his student days and early career through his involvement with opera and on to his final years. This was Lieder, or German art song. Prompted in part by the fine soprano voice of his wife, Pauline de Ahna, Strauss wrote more than 200. Not only the quantity of these works, but their deep expressiveness, distinguishes Strauss as one of the masters of Lieder writing, the heir of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. But unlike those earlier Lieder composers, who wrote only piano accompaniment for most of their songs, Strauss often created orchestral settings for his Lieder, a penchant he shared with his great contemporary Gustav Mahler.
Strauss’s crowning achievement as a song writer also proved to be his final composition. Written when he was 84, Vier letzte Lieder, or Four Last Songs, closed the circle of Strauss’s life in music. In this work, which uses verses by Hermann Hesse and the 19th-century poet Joseph von Eichendorff, the composer returned to the lush Romanticism that had been his signature as a young musician. He also included in the final song a quotation from a composition he had written more than half a century earlier.
The musical references to Strauss’s youth find a literary counterpart in the text of the first song, “Frühling” (“Spring”), a hymn to young life. But with the second song, “September,” it becomes clear that parting and death constitute the real theme of this cycle, the end of summer providing a metaphor for the mortality of all earth’s creatures. “Beim Schlafengehen,” the third song, shifts the focus from nature to the human realm. This is one of Strauss’s most moving songs, and it attains what seems an almost religious intensity of feeling.
The intimations of death thus far implied become explicit in the final song. But death is not a grim or frightful prospect for Strauss. A feeling of deep peace runs through the music of “Im Abendrot,” and in its final moments the composer presents two important symbols of life and continuity. Rising in the horn at the mention of death is the “transfiguration motif” from Strauss’s 1889 tone poem Death and Transfiguration. As in that orchestral composition, this theme serves as an emblem of spiritual triumph over death. The music fades toward silence, and we hear the trilling of two larks encountered earlier in the song. The meaning of this sound is unmistakable: life will continue after the composer, after each individual, is gone.
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Duration ca. 45 minutes
Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
In 1854, around the time he turned 21, Brahms heard for the first time a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Almost immediately he began sketching a symphony of his own in the same key of D minor and in much the same spirit as Beethoven’s great work. Completing it took more than two decades. Brahms’s inexperience in orchestral writing cost a number of false starts, and the composer discarded much of his original material, including all of the first movement. It was replaced by a new one in 1862, by which time the music had migrated from D minor to C minor. Brahms continued to write and revise the symphony, ignoring pleas by his friends that he bring it before the public. Not until 1876 was he sufficiently satisfied that he released it for performance.
It is hardly surprising that, as the music became known, similarities to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony were noted by many critics. The stormy opening movement, the broad, folk-hymn theme of the finale, and the dramatic progression over the course of the work from struggle to triumph, have obvious precedents in Beethoven’s last symphony. But such comparisons failed to recognize the very Brahmsian qualities of the work. Characteristically, it was Theodore Billroth, a thoughtful surgeon and pianist whose judgments Brahms valued highly, who perceived both its inspiration and originality. After examining the score, he wrote to the composer: “That the whole symphony has a somewhat similar emotional groundwork as the Ninth of Beethoven occurred to me in my study of it. And yet ... your own artistic individuality stands out clearly.” His observation remains accurate and useful a century later.
The first movement opens with a dramatic introduction in slow tempo. In its initial measures two melodic lines — one rising, the other descending — pull roughly at each other while timpani and bass instruments toll somberly beneath them. A plaintive melody introduced by the oboe then leads to the main Allegro portion of the movement. “This is rather strong,” wrote Clara Schumann when Brahms showed her an early draft, “but I’ve grown used to it. The movement is full of beauties, the themes are treated masterfully.” So they are. And had she seen the complete symphony at the time, Frau Schumann might have added that the sense of turmoil and conflict that fills this movement serves to prepare the exultant finale.
The inner movements are less turbulent but no less moving. A religious serenity pervades the second, while the third is breezy and melodious. Its initial measures provide an example of Brahms’s fondness for thematic relationships and symmetries: the second phrase of clarinet melody is precisely the mirror image of the first, the melodic contours rising where previously they fell, and vice versa.
With the onset of the finale, Brahms returns to the drama established in the first movement. Its initial section seems shrouded in dark C minor harmonies. Suddenly, however, a clarion horn call dispels the shadows and leads to the movement’s broad principal theme. The triumphal character and folk-song-like simplicity of this subject inevitably brought comparisons with the “Ode to Joy” melody in Beethoven’s Ninth. Brahms dismissed the similarity as incidental and obvious. “Any ass can see that,” he reportedly exclaimed when the resemblance was pointed out. Clearly of greater consequence is how Brahms, in his own way, takes this theme to heights of exultant expression in the symphony’s concluding minutes.
STRAUSS: FOUR LAST SONGS, TEXTS
“Frühling” (“Spring”) — Hermann Hesse
In dämmrigen Grüften In dusky graveyards
Trämte ich lang I dreamed long
Von deinen Baumen und blauen luften of your trees and blue skies,
Von deinem Duft und Vogelgesang. of your scent and your bird song.
Nun liegst du erschlossen Now you lie uncovered
In Gleiss und Zier, glittering and ornamented
Von Licht übergossen bathed in light
Wie ein Wunder vor mir. like a jewel before me.
Du kennst mich wieder, You recognize me,
Du lockest mich zart, you entice me gently,
Es zittert durch all mein Glieder a shudder runs thought my body
Dein selige Gegenwart. your blissful presence.
“September” (“September”) — Hermann Hesse
Der Garten trauert, The garden grieves,
Kühl sinkt in die Baumen der Regen. cool sinks the rain into the flowers.
Der Sommer schauert The summer shivers
Still seinem Ende engegen. quietly at the prospect of its end.
Golden tropft Blatt und Blatt Golden drop the leaves slowly
Nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum. from the tall acacia tree,
Sommer lacechelt erstaunt und matt Summer smiles faintly and in surprise
In der sterbenden Gartentraum. in the dying dream of the garden.
Lange noch bei den Rosen For a long time it lingers,
Bliebt er stehen, sehnt sich nach Ruh. upon the roses, longing for the rest.
Langsam tut er die Slowly it closes its great
Mügewordnen Augen zu. now weary eyes.
“Beim Schlafengehen” (“On Going to Sleep”) — Hermann Hesse
Nun der tag mich müd gemacht Made tired by the day now,
Soll mein sehnliches Verlangen my passionate longing
Freundliche die gestirnte Nacht shall welcome the starry night
Wie ein müdes Kind emphangen. like a tired child.
Hände lasst von alle Tun, Hands, leave all your activity,
Stirn vergiss du alles Denken. brow, forget all thought,
Alle mein Sinne nun for all my senses
Wollen sich in Schlummer senken. are about to go to sleep.
Und die Seele unbewacht And my soul, unguarded,
Will in freien Flügeln schewben, will float freely,
Um im Zauberkreis der Nacht in order to live in the magic circle of the night
Tief und tausendfach zu leben. deep and a thousand-fold.
“Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”) — Joseph von Eichendorff
Wir sin durch Not und Freude In times of trial and joy
Gegangen Hand in Hand; we have gone hand in hand,
Vom Wandern ruhn wir beide now we can rest from our travels
Nun überm stillen Land. over the still land.
Rings sich die Taeler neigen, All around the valleys descend,
Es dunkelt schon die Luft, the sky is already growing dark,
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen only two larks ascend
Nachträumend in den Duft. night-dreaming into the fragrant air.
Tritt her, und lass sie schwirren, Come closer and leave them to their fluttering,
Bald ist es Schlafenzeit, soon it will be time for sleep,
Dass wir uns nicht verirren lest we go astray
In deiser Einsamkeit. in this lonely hour.
O weiter, stiller Friede! Oh, boundless, silent quietude,
So tief im Abendrot so profound in the sunset!
Wie sind wir wandermüde — How tired we are of our travelling—
Ist das etwas der Tod? can this perhaps be death?