The Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra
William Schrickel, Music Director
Sunday, November 19, 2017—4:00 PM
St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church, Plymouth, Minnesota
William Schrickel, conductor
Gunther Schuller Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
I. Antique Harmonies
II. Abstract Trio
III. Little Blue Devil
IV. Twittering Machine
V. Arab Village
VI. An Eerie Moment
Modest Mussorgsky/Maurice Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition
IV. The Old Castle
IX. Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells
X. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle
XI. Limoges–The Market Place
XII. Catacombs–Sepulchrum Romanum
XIII. Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua
XIV. The Hut on Chicken’s Legs
XV. The Great Gate of Kiev
Gunther Schuller (1925-2015) was a brilliantly gifted American composer, performer, teacher, conductor, writer, lecturer, clinician, music publisher, and administrator. He won the Pulitzer Prize in Music, received a MacArthur Foundation “genius award,” and authored a definitive 2-volume history of jazz. Schuller was the principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony at the age of seventeen and joined the Metropolitan Opera Symphony orchestra when he was nineteen. Self-taught as a composer, he created more than 150 works in all genres. Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee was written for the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and Antal Doráti in 1959. Each of the work’s movements was inspired by the design, shape, content, mood, or title of drawings and paintings created by the Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) between 1912 and 1933. The composer wrote the following explanation of the Seven Themes:
In Antique Harmonien-1925 (Antique Harmonies) I tried to preserve not only Klee’s amber, ochre and brown colors, but also the block-like shapes with which, in constant variation, Klee builds this remarkable painting. Over a dark, dense background, blocks of lighter colored fifths gradually pile up, reaching a climax in the brighter yellow of the trumpets and high strings. A repeated cadence common in 14th–century music on the organum-like open fifths establish the “antique” quality of the “harmonies.”
The music for Abstraktes Trio-1923 (Abstract Trio) is played almost entirely by only three instruments at any given time, but the three instruments differ during the course of the piece, changing from the bright color of woodwinds through the grainier texture of muted brass and bassoon to the somber hues of low woodwinds and tuba.
Kleiner blauer Teufel-1933 (Little Blue Devil) is transformed into a kind of jazz piece. A perky, angular theme (my subjective musical impression of the geometrically conceived head in Klee’s painting) is combined with a blues progression, altered to nine bars instead of the usual twelve, and occasionally distorted asymmetrically. Various shades of the “blue” are maintained through the use of brass and low-register clarinets.
A piece on Klee’s famous Die Zwitschermaschine-1922 (Twittering Machine) should, it seems to me, do primarily one thing—namely: twitter. The mathematical constructive element in present-day serial techniques seemed to lend itself especially logically to such a pointillistic musical representation.
Klee’s Arabische Stadt-1922 (Arab Village) is an abstracted aerial view of a town baking in the bright North African desert sun. A beholder of such a scene—floating, as it were, above the village—might hear the often simultaneous chant of Arab melodies: the melancholy distant flute, blending with the throbbing drums and the nasal dance tunes of the oboe. In preparation for the piece, I consulted numerous musicological sources on Arab music (including works by Bartók and Hornbostel), and used either authentic Arab folk material or very close adaptations thereof.
The music of Ein unheimlicher Moment-1912 (An Eerie Moment) is a musical play more on the title than on Klee’s actual pen drawing. (The German word “unheimlich” is practically untranslatable by a single English word, having a connotation not only of “eerie” but also “unearthly” and “terrifying.”) I have also tried to convey the atmosphere created by the slinking shapes of the picture. The strange, ominous tension of the opening finally finds release in two terrified outbursts, only to sink back into oblivious calm.
Pastorale-1927 was subtitled “Rhythms” by Klee. It is one of the many works of the artist employing a variation principle. It is also a painting that cannot be understood at a single glance. As in Klee’s painting, several rhythmic-melodic shapes occur on various register and speed (temporal) levels. The pastoral quality of the clarinet, French horn and English horn underlines the suspended mood of the music.
Early in 1874, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1891) attended a posthumous exhibition in St. Petersburg of artwork created by his friend Viktor Hartmann, an architect, designer, and painter who had died suddenly from an aneurism the previous August at the age of thirty-nine. In a miraculously short 20-day period during the summer of 1874, Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite of ten piano pieces linked with a recurring “promenade” theme representing the composer himself in various moods as he wanders through the different rooms of the gallery studying Hartmann’s creations.
In 1922, conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) to orchestrate Mussorgsky’s piano music. Since its Paris premiere on May 23, 1923, the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures has been a favorite of audiences, performers, and conductors. The following synopsis of the work, by Malcolm MacDonald, appears in the forward to the published score:
- The piece begins with the Promenade, a formal and somewhat ponderous theme with a pronounced Russian character. Its uneven meter depicts the portly Mussorgsky.
- Gnomus—The music depicts a gnome hopping on crooked legs. Hartmann’s picture was a design for a gnome-shaped nutcracker.
- The Old Castle—A troubadour sings before a medieval castle. Here, Ravel gives the main melody to the saxophone.
- Tuileries—The music depicts the Paris gardens, bustling with nursemaids and squabbling children.
- Bydlo—A Polish ox-cart rolls along on enormous wheels. Ravel gives the melody to the tenor tuba.
- Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells— Hartmann’s picture shows sketches of some costumes for Trilby, a ballet by J. Gerber.
- Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle—This is a double portrait based on two pictures of [men] by Hartmann. Musically, one is arrogant and austere…; the other is pathetic with its importunate whining repeated notes.
- Limoges–The Market Place—The French market-women in this clatteringly rhythmic piece are said to be gossiping about lost cows, a drunken neighbor and some false teeth.
- Catacombs–Sepulchrum Romanum—Hartmann depicts himself probing the mystery of the catacombs by the light of a lantern.
- Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua—Mussorgsky figuratively picks up Hartmann’s lantern from the catacombs and continues the quest in this spectral, quasi-religious transformation of the Promenade tune. In the autograph score, Mussorgsky wrote: “A Latin text would be suitable—the creative soul of the dead Hartmann leads me to the skulls, invokes them…the skulls begin to glow faintly….”
- The Hut on Chicken’s Legs—This is a brilliant, grotesque march. Hartmann designed a clock in the form of the hut in which dwelt Baba-Yaga, the mythical witch of Russian folklore who ground up human bones with her mortar and pestle to feed to her captives.
- The Great Gate of Kiev—This design was commissioned in 1866 but never built. Hartmann’s gate was in ancient Russian style, with a cupola shaped like a Slavic war helmet. Mussorgsky’s finale, incorporating a triumphant variant of the Promenade theme, brings the suite to a conclusion with pealing bell-effects that recall the coronation pageantry of the composer’s opera Boris Godunov.
©William Schrickel 2017