“Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome
Duration ca. 10 minutes
Scored for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, and strings
This evening’s concert presents three compositions written for, or inspired by, dance. Such music is often energetic, but it is exceptionally so in the case of these works. We begin with one of the most notorious creations of Richard Strauss.
As a young composer, Strauss made his reputation with a series of tone poems that retain a prominent place in the orchestral literature. He then turned to the theater, producing a series of highly successful operas. The most daring of those works was an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a play that retold the biblical story of the enticing and lustful step-daughter of King Herod. Strauss’s operatic treatment of Wilde’s stage play provoked outrage and censorship when it was first performed in 1905. Since then, Salome has gained recognition as a masterpiece of expressionist opera.
The plot of Salome turns on the title character’s deranged love for John the Baptist, Herod’s prisoner. When the holy man spurns her advances, Salome is overcome with a vengeful passion and demands the prophet’s head. The King, who harbors his own desire for Salome, agrees to this if only she will dance for him. She does, performing a frankly sensuous pantomime with her veils. When Herod delivers her promised reward, Salome, sinking completely into madness, continues her dance with John’s severed head.
Salome’s dance before Herod, the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” has become the most famous portion of Strauss’s opera, and no wonder. As an expression of eroticism it has few parallels in music, and its orchestration is colorful in the extreme. From the start, Strauss strikes what he called an “oriental” tone — that is, one redolent of the Near East. But Strauss is not wholly given to exoticism, and the character of the music begins to give way to a more central-European sound, even intimating a waltz. Finally the tempo accelerates, and the music grows more energetic. Apart from a few moments of relative quiet just before the end, the final minutes are ones of mounting frenzy, with Strauss pulling out all his orchestral stops.
GABRIELA LENA FRANK
Three Latin American Dances for Orchestra
Duration ca. 17 minutes
Scored for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, piano, harp, and strings
Much of the excitement in concert music these days stems from the infusion of multi-cultural influences on new composition. Few composers exemplify this trend more than the California-based Gabriela Lena Frank. In her music, Frank blends South American mythology, poetry, and folk song with western classical forms to reflect her Peruvian-Jewish heritage. She has traveled widely in Latin America and has been attentive to the music she has encountered there. Like Bela Bartók and the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, both of whom she regards as kindred spirits, she has used folk music as a principal source of her work.
Three Latin American Dances exemplifies Frank’s transformation of folkloric sources into sophisticated modern orchestral music. The first of these dances begins with a scherzo-like introduction which, the composer admits, pays “unabashed tribute to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein.” The music then becomes a “Jungle Jaunt,” using harmonies and rhythms culled from different pan-Amazonian dances, though, as Frank notes, the borrowed material passes so quickly that it remains well hidden.
Frank describes the second movement as the heart of Three Latin American Dances. It begins and concludes with music in the style of the Andean harawi, a slow, melancholy song traditionally played on a bamboo flute to accompany a single dancer. Here the composer aimed to capture the “mystery, vastness, and echo” of Peruvian mountain music. Between the two harawi sections comes a fast-paced interlude. It was inspired, Frank says, by thoughts of Illapa, a Peruvian-Inca god of weather, who spins the zumballyu, a great whirling top, in the highland valleys of the Andes to create thunder, lightning, and rain.
The third dance, “The Mestizo Waltz,” pays tribute to the music of the mixed-race populations of the South American Pacific coast. In particular, Frank notes, it references the “romancero” tradition of popular songs and dances that blend influences from both indigenous Indian and African slave cultures with the sounds of western brass bands.
Gabriela Lena Frank studied at Rice University and the University of Michigan, where she earned a doctorate in composition. Her teachers include William Albright, Leslie Bassett, William Bolcom, and Samuel Jones. She divides her time between California and South America.
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring): Scenes of Pagan Russia in Two Parts
Duration ca. 33 minutes
Scored for 5 flutes, including piccolo and alto flute; 5 oboes, including 2 English horns; 5 clarinets, including E-flat and bass clarinets; 5 bassoons, including 2 contrabassoons; 8 horns, including 2 “Wagner tubas;” 5 trumpets, including piccolo and bass trumpet; 3 trombones; 2 tubas; timpani and a large battery of percussion; and strings
Only a handful of musical works may truly be said to be epochal, compositions upon which the entire course of music seems to turn weightily in a new direction. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, though not the first work to express a modernist sensibility, nevertheless stands as a landmark in the emergence of a new tonal order. Its thrilling rhythms, hypnotic phrases, audacious discords, and bold orchestral effects represented a radical break with the musical past and exerted an enormous influence on a succeeding generation of composers. And they remain as exciting today as in 1913, when the score first was heard.
It seems appropriate that the inspiration for this visionary composition should have come to its creator in a vision. In the spring of 1910 Stravinsky was finishing the score to his ballet The Firebird, which had been commissioned by the impresario Serge Diaghilev for his Paris-based dance and theater company, the Ballets Russes. Perhaps Stravinsky’s preoccupation with the ancient, mythical world of The Firebird made him particularly susceptible to intimations from the distant past. In any event, he experienced one day a fleeting daydream of a scene out of Russian pre-history. “I saw in imagination,” the composer remembered, “a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.”
Stravinsky related this vision to Diaghilev, who immediately determined to base a ballet upon it. But the composer was not certain how to approach his subject in musical terms, and he began instead to compose a work for piano and orchestra which eventually grew into the score for the ballet Petrushka. Diaghilev, however, continued to urge Stravinsky to produce his “pagan rite” music, and in the summer of 1911 the composer at last set to work. The score was completed in early March, 1913, and first performed some twelve weeks later.
The premiere of The Rite of Spring by the Ballets Russes on May 29 at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées ignited a near riot in the audience. Some of the controversy was provoked by the sets and choreography, but the principal point of contention was Stravinsky’s score. According to one eye-witness,
a certain part of the audience was [outraged] by what it considered a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and, swept away with wrath, began very soon after the rise of the curtain to make cat-calls and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. The orchestra played unheard, except when a slight lull occurred. The figures on the stage danced in time to music they had to imagine they heard and beautifully out of time with the uproar in the audience.
Stravinsky himself recalled that
Mild protests against the music could be heard from the beginning of the performance. Then, when the curtain opened … the storm broke out. Cries of “Ta gueule” [“Shut up!”] came from behind me.... The uproar continued … and a few minutes later I left the hall in a rage; I was sitting on the right near the orchestra, and I remember slamming the door. I have never been that angry. The music was so familiar to me; I loved it and could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance. I arrived in a fury backstage, where I saw Diaghilev flicking the house lights in a last effort to quiet the hall.
Despite this daunting baptism, The Rite of Spring has emerged as one of the most highly praised and frequently heard scores of the twentieth century, a classic of the modern era. The ease with which it has made the transition from ballet stage to concert hall is due in part to the fairly indefinite nature of its choreographic scenario. While a brief outline of this is given in the headings of the various sections of the score, it should be noted that the music has served well with a wide variety of dramatic treatments, perhaps the most familiar being the dinosaur sequence in Walt Disney’s film “Fantasia.”
Indeed, The Rite of Spring may perhaps most profitably be heard in general rather than specific programmatic terms, as a hymn to the violence and mystery of nature rather than as an aural depiction of particular scenes which have been choreographed to it. In this respect, a remark Stravinsky made late in his life seems particularly revealing. When asked what he most loved about Russia, the composer answered: “The violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking. That was the most wonderful event of every year of my childhood.”