In Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world.
On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, September 5th, 5 to 6 pm - If you’re looking for one composer who can be said to have created the sound of American music, you might look no further than Virgil Thomson. It’s true that Charles Ives was the pioneer who invented a crazy-quilt of music that was distinctively American. And there were, of course, American composers of concert music before Ives, such as the European-educated or -influenced George Chadwick, Horatio Parker (Ives’s teacher at Yale), Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell, George Bristow.
Alleluia is by far Randall Thompson’s best-known work; he is known overwhelmingly for his choral music, such as Frostiana and The Peaceable Kingdom. But Thompson also composed three symphonies, so we’ll get to know his symphonic writing on this Discoveries program.
From two works of his that are in the Fleisher Collection, we’ll hear the outer movements of Symphony No. 1 and all of Symphony No. 2. Both were composed early in his career, within a two-year span.
On this month’s Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, July 4th, 5-6 pm, we meet the new curator, Gary Galván. He’s worked at the Collection since 2005 on research and special projects, but this year took over the reins as the seventh curator of the world’s largest lending library of orchestral performance material. Galván will discuss the composers on the program and give us an idea of some of his plans for the future of the Collection.
On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday May 2nd, 5-6 pm... It’s a symphony from 100 years ago, from someone not known for writing symphonies. Or is it even a symphony? Richard Strauss calls his own 50-minute work An Alpine Symphony, and the composer ought to have some authority here, but he referred to his earlier Domestic Symphony as a tone poem. In 22 continuous movements, not four separate ones, An Alpine Symphony certainly sounds like a symphonic poem, and not a symphony.
He did write two symphonies, No. 1 when he was 16 and No. 2 when he was 20, but they hardly saw the light of day. When he was in a position to record his own music, he never bothered with them. As he became older and more adept at using larger and larger orchestral forces, Strauss looked for newer means of expression, often referring to “the symphony” as outmoded. The tone poem, with its literary and philosophical underpinnings, each one with a form unique to itself, became his signature. The sunny From Italy led to Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, then Macbeth and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, then his monumental grapple with Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. They all poured out in less than 10 years. Don Quixote followed, then the autobiographical A Hero’s Life and Domestic Symphony.
Strauss created operas and many, many other works during this time, but by 1915 he was able to work on this, the final version of the Alpine Symphony. He had begun sketching it in 1899 and seems to have wanted to make it into an actual symphony, but described the process to a friend as “torturing.” Then he came up with the idea of making it a picture—with philosophical undertones—of a hike up and down a mountain. It depicts an 11-hour excursion, from night through sunrise, forests, meadows, pastures, a wrong turn, a glacier, the summit, a storm, a hurried descent, sunset, and night again.
Major themes work their way through it but what is most arresting about An Alpine Symphony is Strauss’s mastery of the orchestra. He calls for a gigantic ensemble about twice the size needed for even large orchestral works. At one point, an offstage band mimics a hunting party going by—its music has nothing to do with the onstage music and it’s never heard again—but that alone requires an extra 16 brass players. There’s a wind machine, thunder machine, cowbells, and if that were not enough, an organ.
Strauss, recognized by all as the consummate orchestrator among his colleagues past, present, and future, joked that he finally learned how to orchestrate with this piece. He would live to 1949, but this would be the last purely symphonic work he ever composed.
So whether it’s a symphony or not, An Alpine Symphony, from 100 years ago, is in many ways a summit in the career of Richard Strauss.
On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, April 4th, 5-6 pm... There’s one Paul Dukas work that overshadows everything else he wrote, and that’s a shame because there’s much more to him, the 150th anniversary of whose birth is in 2015, than that.
There's a kind of little village of artisans on Manhattan's West 54th Street. In a couple of plain looking office towers, there are a bunch of rehearsal studios, violin makers' workshops and other music businesses. Behind one of those office doors on the 10th floor sits Frank Music Company — Frank's, as everybody calls it.
On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, 5-6 pm... One hundred years ago, and the world was in upheaval. The 19th century was fast becoming a memory by 1915. The previous generation’s nationalism in classical music had catapulted new languages into the concert hall, but it was now seen as irrelevant, corrosive, or at best, old-fashioned. Nationalism was now viewed through the War, in its second year, called “Great” by some and “World” by others. In a few decades it would take on a name even more horrible than World War; it would be called the “First.”
Two very different composers who died in 1915 signify the passing century remarkably well. One was the friend of royalty; another, the friend of musical royalty.
Émile Waldteufel’s violinist brother Léon won admission to the Paris Conservatory, and the father Louis moved the entire family there, from Strasbourg in the Alsatian region of France. It was a smart move, for Louis Waldteufel conducted his own successful orchestra, and found even more fame in the country’s capital city. Émile went on to study piano at the Conservatory, soloed with the Waldteufel Orchestra, and at 27, became the court pianist for Empress Eugénie.
But the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 greatly altered royal life. Waldteufel continued to play for small elite gatherings but was otherwise little-known. The Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), however, attended one of those events, loved a little waltz he heard, and invited the piano-playing composer, Émile Waldteufel, to London. It was there that he became famous, writing dances that are still heard today, including Les Patineurs, or The Skater Waltz. He composed and conducted throughout Europe and retired to Paris. After a hugely successful career, he died when Debussy and Stravinsky were au courant.
Sergei Taneyev was also a pianist—a brilliant one—and a music critic and voracious scholar of seemingly any subject that came along. Mathematics, philosophy, science, and history all came under his intense interest, but it was composition that was his dearest love. It expressed itself for him in rigorous counterpoint, the exacting placement of note against note and line against line. Large washes of sound or simple folk tunes evoking a Russian mythos little interested him. Bach and Mozart were to be revered.
Tchaikovsky, 16 years older than Taneyev and one of his best friends, nevertheless feared his criticism. The world-famous composer would ask him sincerely to tell him what he thought of a certain work, and Taneyev obliged, in brutal frankness. He rubbed other composers the wrong way, but his friendship with Tchaikovsky remained undiminished, if needing, here and there, a couple of days’ cooling off. Taneyev, in fact, was the soloist for the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and gave the Russian premiere of the Second as well as the world premiere of the Third.
Their outlook was indeed similar, and after Tchaikovsky’s death Taneyev completed and edited some of the unfinished works. Searching for a more international or cosmopolitan expression, they had not bought into the Russianism of Balakirev or Mussorgsky. But Taneyev’s Suite de Concert, really a violin concerto, is his most famous work, and is filled with, ironically, folk-like beauty. A heart attack killed him as he recuperated from pneumonia he caught attending the funeral of another world-famous composer, Scriabin. 1915 was certainly a year of upheaval.
On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday 5-6 pm... One hundred years ago saw the birth of David Diamond, who would enter the first rank of 20th-century American composers. His most-played work, Rounds for string orchestra, is the only work of his many people have heard, so we will not play that today. Instead, a large work for orchestra, a small work for orchestra, and a memorial to a composer who was a great influence will walk us through his career.
One may wonder why someone who is held in such great esteem isn’t played more, but that points up the dichotomy of David Diamond, and the sometimes-difficult trajectory of his music. He was born in Rochester, N.Y. in 1915 and died there in 2005, but in between lived in Cleveland, New York City, France, and Italy. He was immensely talented and early on played violin and composed. His family moved to Cleveland, he studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and when the great Maurice Ravel visited the Cleveland Orchestra, Diamond visited him. The French composer looked at the 13-year-old’s compositions, recognized his talent, and told him that he must study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.
He would do that (as had many other American composers, including Aaron Copland) eight years later, after a stint at Eastman in Rochester and then in New York City, studying with Roger Sessions. Finally in Paris with Boulanger, he studied Ravel’s music as part of his training. Ravel died in 1937, and Diamond wrote the exquisite Elegy to the Memory of Maurice Ravel.
Back in the States he played violin in theaters, wrote some commercial music, and began to produce vast amounts of chamber and orchestral pieces. The earliest of his 11 symphonies appeared at this time, as did his Concerto for Chamber Orchestra in Two Parts, filled, as most of his music is, with fugues and counterpoint, every bit of it lyrical but not always warm and fuzzy at first hearing.
And he was not always warm and fuzzy at this time. Stories of his being tossed from rehearsals and of other altercations followed him. He later admitted, "I was a highly emotional young man, very honest in my behavior, and I would say things in public that would cause a scene between me and, for instance, a conductor." Not good for a career, and yet he continued to produce.
Shifting fashions in high-octane contemporary classical music left him, for a time, without much of a profile beyond Rounds, but fortunately he lived to see a strong resurgence of interest in his music, after teaching in Italy and elsewhere and, for 25 years, at Juilliard. Conductor Gerard Schwarz’s recordings have led much of the comeback. The Symphony No. 8 honors Copland’s 60th birthday; we’ll hear American similarities and differences in the voice of David Diamond. A National Medal of Arts in 1995, among many awards, recognized his importance to music, and 100 years after his birth, we recognize David Diamond’s voice as one we still need to hear.
On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, December 6th, 5 to 6 pm. Does the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music have vocal works? It does now, although it didn’t originally. The Symphony Club had no singers, so it didn’t require vocal or choral music. But as its library expanded, became a part of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and began circulating to orchestras, the need to look beyond purely instrumental works increased. Requests came in for Handel’s Messiah, the Brahms German Requiem, a Schubert or Mozart Mass, opera arias here and there, and so by the late 1970s the Collection started purchasing some of the great voice with orchestra literature.
We'll wrap up our three-program excursion into the music of Johann Sebastian Bach with two of his works for voices. Last month we looked at concertos using harpsichords, which first saw the light of day in the 1730s at Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig, but the work most associated with that place, of course, is the Coffee Cantata. Bach wrote no operas, but this secular cantata is, in effect, a mini-opera.
“Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” are the first words sung by the father Schlendrian to his daughter, and are a great beginning to any concert, as they mean, “Be quiet and stop yakking!” (more or less). Schlendrian, literally, “stick in the mud,” wishes to get his daughter out of the newly fashionable but addicting activity of coffee-drinking. She will not yield until he offers to get her—if she quits—a husband. She agrees, but lets us know that she’ll only marry a man who lets her drink coffee. And that’s the story, the libretto by a frequent collaborator of Bach’s, Christian Friedrich Henrici who wrote under the name “Picander.”
In 1716, Bach, at Weimar, composed the original version of Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, “Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life,” a cantata for one of the weeks leading up to Christmas. When Bach moved to Leipzig to become Kantor, or music director, of the prestigious St. Thomas Church, he started to compose cantatas for each week of the church year. He needed one for a July Sunday, the Visitation of the expectant mother Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (soon to be the mother of John the Baptist), and remembered his old Weimar cantata.
It was a studied choice. Because of differences in the observance of Advent between Weimar and Leipzig, the old cantata wasn’t useable for him anymore, so instead of letting it sit in a desk drawer, he took it out and revised it. About half of it worked perfectly—it was already Marian in nature—but he added more sections. The last movement of it, however, will be recognizable to anyone who has ever heard Bach.
Alon Goldstein performs Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, arranged for piano by Dame Myra Hess:
“Jesus bleibet meine Freude” means “Jesus remains my joy,” but we hear this music at weddings, at Christmas, at Easter, and all through the year in every kind of arrangement, as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (the words by English poet Robert Bridges, 1844–1930). The chorale melody, unadorned by Bach’s bubbling triplets, is by Johann Schop (c.1590–1667), reminding us that there really is no such thing as a “Bach chorale tune.” He excelled in these chorale movements at taking old Lutheran hymn melodies and, in settings of exquisite craftmanship, creating new works of genius. Vocal works with orchestra indeed have a place in the Fleisher Collection.
On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday Nov. 1st, 2014, 5-6 pm... Let’s face it, the harpsichord is an acquired taste. In popular culture, never helpful for appreciating the fine or unusual, the harpsichord is shorthand for—at best—stuffy, rich, out-of-touch, let-them-eat-cake. That’s at best. At worst, it’s sinister. And that doesn’t even count Lurch on The Addams Family.
The harpsichord is a beautiful instrument that has often been misapplied. It has a delicate, refined sound, yet can help to keep the players onstage together. Indeed, before we stood conductors on their feet in front of everyone, they were often in the middle of the orchestra, seated at and playing the harpsichord.
But placing that plucked keyboard in a large hall with many instruments will bury the sound. We are left to wonder: If we can’t hear it, why is it there? The answer, of course, is that it shouldn’t be. Even large harpsichords need smallish rooms and a modicum of company. Then we can really hear its capacity for nuance and, yes, power.
Johann Sebastian Bach understood this, as he did so many things, and basically invented the harpsichord concerto, mostly for concerts at the local coffee house, Zimmermann’s. But calling them concerts doesn’t quite catch the flavor. Bach ran (along with the music in four churches, a school, and much else in Leipzig) the Collegium Musicum, a student musical group. Bach’s Coffee Cantata, the closest thing to an opera he ever wrote, was probably written for performance here.
Zimmermann’s had two rooms, the largest, about 26’ x 32’, the size of a very ample living room. This is where the harpsichord concertos of Bach were premiered. Newer recordings of Bach take this to heart. We can hear the tang of the strings, the colors of the instruments, the roar of crescendos as cataracts of notes tumble up and down the keyboard.
Since the harpsichord has no sustain pedal like the piano, and since the inner mechanism plucks the strings with the same force regardless of how hard one hits the keys, the only way to make it louder is literally to play more notes at the same time. Listen for this in Bach’s writing, and in these wonderful performances.
Bach cobbled together most of his harpsichord concertos from other works, rewriting other solo concertos into this format. Because some of his sons were still living at home and were excellent keyboardists, they may have played on some of these. The triple concerto (solo harpsichord, flute, and violin with string accompaniment) features the keyboard the most. The two-harpsichord concerto may be the only one that began life as an actual harpsichord piece. For the concerto of a quartet of harpsichords, Bach went not to his own music, but to Vivaldi’s, which he loved and from which he learned so much. It’s a Baroque battle of the bands, with the players trading arpeggios back and forth.
It’s easy to imagine the sheer fun Bach had writing and playing these at Zimmermann’s, alongside students, his sons, and a willing audience of coffee drinkers eager to hear the latest from the Leipzig Kantor. Now there’s a taste we’re happy to acquire.