Program Notes – Simple Gifts

Stravinsky – L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)

It is ironic that a pandemic is one factor in bringing Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) to our stage, since the pandemic before it curtailed the work’s performances in 1918 when it was written. Stravinsky was famous for his Paris ballets The Firebird and The Rite of Spring but had moved to Switzerland with his family when WWI broke out. Always eager for stimulating collaborations, he built a circle of Swiss artists including the writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz and conductor Ernest Ansermet. He could still travel but having his work performed was difficult in the tight economic and personnel conditions. Thus was born the idea to Ramuz, who had already helped Stravinsky with other projects, for a small-scale theatrical production that could tour and generate direct ticket income while royalties were suspended.

Stravinsky found ‘The Deserter and the Devil’ in a common anthology of Russian folk tales and Ramuz adapted the story in French for acting roles: a narrator (in formal attire), a soldier, the devil, and a mute dancing princess. There is no singing though the devil does dance. Stravinsky wrote the music from spring to late summer 1918.

The plot goes roughly as follows: the soldier Joseph, marching home on leave, encounters the devil in disguise, who persuades him to trade his violin for three days of lessons in the meaning of a magic book. On returning home Joseph realizes he has been tricked and that three years, not days, have passed. His sweetheart has married another. Though Joseph had become wealthy through the book’s knowledge, he considers the deal a mistake. In some of the heaviest symbolism of the story, he relocates the devil but discovers the violin (representing his soul) is mute when he himself tries to play it, and gives up. Leaving home, he hears the King’s daughter is sick and heads for the palace, where the devil has already arrived, playing the violin. He calculates if he contrives to lose his ill-gotten money in a card game with the devil, he’ll reclaim the violin and its voice. In succeeding, he heals the princess and defeats the devil by forcing him to dance to the music. However, he leaves the castle with his bride in an attempt to see his home again, forfeiting his triumph, and the devil finally wins. The moral?

“No one can have it all,

That is forbidden.

You must learn to choose between.”

Stravinsky must have related on some level to the elements of alienation both in time and place within L’Histoire. Returning to his Russian homeland engulfed in political turmoil was impossible (and didn’t happen for over forty years), and he was responsible for an ailing wife and large family. While the story is Russian in origin, its setting only makes the slightest borrowing from Russian folk music, previously a major beacon for the composer, while retaining the fascination with ostinati  (repeated rhythmic patterns) he had shown for several years. The music is written with many numerical meter changes, usually necessitating a conductor even with just seven players. The instrumental lines are crafted with both originality and sensitivity to tone color and balance.

Perhaps only Stravinsky could form a coherent whole from the hodgepodge of musical inspirations in L’Histoire; the princess’s dances alone consist of a consecutive tango, waltz, and ragtime, all popular styles of 1918. This last genre is most familiar to listeners today through Scott Joplin’s catchy piano music, but Stravinsky typically made it his own, probably having heard it in Paris bars during his time there before seeing it in print; this wasn’t the first time he’d tried it. While ragtime is not jazz despite Stravinsky’s own loose use of terminology, the collection of instruments in L’Histoire is pretty close to an early jazz ensemble. The presence of the violin, naturally prominent from the story, has a swaggering, almost gypsy feel suitable to the itinerant protagonist.

A full production of L’Histoire lasts almost an hour with the concert suite extracting about half that music, some of which gets reprised in the dramatic version. The rehearsals in 1918 were a heady affair, with Stravinsky leaping on the piano while drinking cherry brandy, to the point where it was suggested he should play the devil. Ernest Ansermet duly conducted the first performance in Lausanne, Switzerland as WWI continued to rage in September. But the Spanish flu pandemic prevented the kind of touring the creators had in mind, which would have been harder than they thought anyway with a cast of twelve plus scenic and costume specialists. Stravinsky’s arrangement of the suite for violin, clarinet and piano immediately after the premiere did the job of making the music better known. He returned to L’Histoire as conductor on occasion the rest of his long life, including a memorable New York outing in 1966 with none other than Aaron Copland, another of tonight’s composers, playing the soldier!

Richard Strauss – Serenade for Winds, Op. 7

Richard Strauss was precocious as a composer. By fifteen he had undertaken advanced studies in counterpoint (how musical lines fit together) and started writing large-scale works. The year he turned seventeen, 1881, several major pieces were performed including a string quartet and symphony. This was largely due to his father Franz’s teaching and influence as a renowned horn player. From the same source came Richard’s reverence for Mozart, clearly a model in choosing thirteen instruments though not exactly the same ones as the earlier composer, for a wind serenade. Foreshadowing Strauss’s later extravagance of musical resources, there is one pitch for double bass, a stringed instrument, at the very end. The serenade was completed in November 1881 and radiates a Mozartian clarity and grace even amidst its Romantic sensibility.

The next fall Strauss honored his father’s wishes and studied philosophy and aesthetics at the university in his hometown of Munich, an arrangement that didn’t last long since he preferred to learn informally despite (or perhaps because of) his high intelligence. In the meantime he had met conductor Franz Wüllner through his budding love of Richard Wagner’s music, gaining a long-term champion.

Wüllner introduced the wind serenade in November 1882 with the players of the Dresden Musicians’ Association. Along with the first horn concerto, this serenade is still one of the most programmed pieces from Strauss’s youth. Friends remarked that the young man’s demeanor was unchanged by success and his family made little fuss over it save presenting Richard with a monogrammed gold signet ring. The eminent conductor Hans von Bülow took up the serenade in 1883 leading to wider fame for the budding composer and a commission for another wind piece. Only much later in the 1940s did the elderly Strauss return to write sequels to these, taking a keen interest moreover in the education of his grandsons and presenting his eldest (also Richard) with the ring he had worn for over sixty years.

Copland – Appalachian Spring (version for 13 instruments)

This best loved of American ballets was the last of Aaron Copland’s trilogy on folk-based subjects, and the single piece that most encapsulates his “American style.” It represents the fruit of a happy collaboration in which the composer and choreographer trusted each other to work their own ways for mutual benefit.

Martha Graham’s contemporary dance company, still active under her name today, was founded in 1926. Already in 1931 she had used fresh music by Copland (his modernist Piano Variations) for a performance, and asked him for a tailor-made score in 1941. But the subject of the vengeful sorceress Medea, while keeping with Graham’s penchant for tragedy, didn’t suit Copland and he declined (in favor, eventually, of Samuel Barber).

Patron of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned new ballets for Graham to be performed all on the same night the following autumn. Copland, who had met Coolidge earlier, was among those receiving an agreement for $500 in 1942. Ever a lover of chamber music, the benefactor specified a half-hour length and “not more than ten or twelve instruments… one instrument of each kind, both wind and strings with piano.” Graham hoped for a score by summer of 1943 but Copland’s film work in Hollywood and her own tardiness at providing guidance made this impractical. The intended scenario was fairly vague, titled ‘House of Victory,’ and had a Civil War episode along with Native Americans and biblical allusions. Copland gently helped guide this toward the story we know, set in early nineteenth-century Pennsylvania in a rural Shaker community. His use of the song Simple Gifts in the ballet stemmed from a recently published book of Shaker tunes; never mind he later found there were no Shakers in rural Pennsylvania!

Predominantly he was inspired by Graham herself, who would dance the lead: “Nobody else seems anything like Martha, and she’s unquestionably very American. There’s something prim and restrained, a strong quality about her, that one tends to think of as American. Her dance style is seemingly, but only seemingly, simple and extremely direct.” Aside from the highly American notion of deciding what is American, his description of her dancing could just as well apply to his music for the project. He called it ‘Ballet for Martha.’

With only one third of the music done by the summer target and with Coolidge ill, the premiere would have to wait a year. Copland finished his contribution while lecturing at Harvard as a guest in spring 1944, and orchestrated the ballet — for thirteen instruments, in a roguish twist beyond specifications — over the hot summer in New York. About to leave for Mexico, he made a piano recording of the music to send to Graham so she could work out the choreography. Although he had personally presented snippets earlier, she was delighted by the full result. Heading straight to Washington that October for the premiere on Coolidge’s eightieth birthday at the Library of Congress, Copland still had no final title.

At the last minute Graham found a line in a poem by Hart Crane referring to an ‘Applachian Spring.’ The context implies a water source but most audience members have since taken it to mean winter’s end; Copland was glad to oblige both name and vernal intention. (It helped that another ballet for the evening by Darius Milhaud was titled after the season.) Graham continued refining her description for decades to come, saying in 1975, “It’s spring. There is a house that has not been completed. The bare posts are up. The fence has not been completed. Only a marriage has been celebrated. It is essentially the coming of new life. It has to do with growing things. Spring is the loveliest and the saddest time of the year,” while Copland wryly called it “lighter and happier than Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps.”

The ballet with its four main characters — a young couple, a preacher, and a neighbor — was an unqualified success, spurring recordings and Copland’s immediate arrangement of a suite for full orchestra. Only for his own seventieth birthday in 1970 did he make tonight’s version for the original forces at a friend’s suggestion. While he won the Pulitzer Prize for Appalachian Spring in 1945 just as WWII ended, it was Martha’s approval that meant the most. She even asked for another piece (based on The Scarlet Letter) in 1974, but Copland had retired from composing. As late as 1985 they still sat in the wings together for performances of their ballet.

Still – Serenade for Flute, Clarinet, Harp and Strings

William Grant Still was the most celebrated African-American composer of the twentieth century. He found initial success as a jazz arranger; a sharp sense of instrumentation remained with him his whole career. His first symphony (‘Afro-American’) is heard today with some frequency and the programmatic themes of his music sometimes confronted thorny racial and social issues. He was known for his single-minded devotion to music — if not working, he was tapping his fingers and feet — and his gracious communication style.

After his 1934 move to Los Angeles, Still worked on film scores but continued writing concert music. At the time of the Serenade (1957) he focused intensively on operas with his wife as librettist (author of the text); those from the 1950s are set in Louisiana, a Native American pueblo, and central Africa. Like Copland, Still sometimes composed for young musicians and the Serenade was for the high school players of Great Falls, Montana. 

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