PROGRAM NOTES by Steven Ledbetter


Emperor Waltzes, Opus 437 (arr. Schoenberg)

Johann Strauss Jr., the “waltz king,” ruled in the salons and dance halls of Vienna rather than in the concert halls. Yet such masters of “heavy” music as Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, and Schoenberg were among those who admired this genius of the light genre of the waltz. Brahms famously signed an autograph book with the opening theme of the Blue Danube waltz and added the words, “Unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms.”

At first glance, it might seem odd that the three principle figures of the New Viennese School—Arnold Schoenberg and his two most important pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern —should have any connection with a composer whose light music, so full of charm and joie de vivre, should seem diametrically opposed to the intense expressionism of their own work. But Schoenberg had no objection to popular music if he felt the popular strain was entirely genuine, and he thought highly of Johann Strauss, Jr., as he did later of his American acquaintance and sometime tennis opponent George Gershwin.

The idea of arranging favorite Strauss waltzes into a chamber-music form first came to Schoenberg in 1921, when he was eager to improve the financial situation of his Association for Private Musical Performances, a concert series he had founded in 1918 to allow challenging new compositions a hearing before a self-selected audience of music-lovers, with the stipulation that the performances must not be reviewed in the press. (This was conceived as a way to prevent the stodgy and conservative Viennese critics from damning works that had scarcely had a chance to get a hearing.) The fund-raising idea was to hold a rare concert that would be open beyond small membership of the society, and to perform music that was both unique and popular. To that end, Schoenberg decreed that he and his two pupils would prepare versions of favorite Strauss waltzes for piano, harmonium, and string quartet—the normal instrumentation of the “palm court” salon orchestras of the time. The music would be played at the concert, and the manuscripts would be auctioned off at the end of the evening. The concert was a great success.

It was, no doubt, with this memory still quite fresh that Schoenberg decided four years later to make another Strauss arrangement, this time of the magnificent Emperor Waltzes, one of Strauss’s most daring works in the waltz genre, if only for the elaborate introduction that is a march rather than a waltz. On this occasion Schoenberg chose to score the work somewhat differently: his ensemble consisted of flute, clarinet, string quartet, and piano. He took this arrangement with him on a concert tour of Spain with a program featuring his own Pierrot lunaire, no doubt relying on the popularity of the Strauss score to attract audiences that might be afraid of his revolutionary composition. In every bar Schoenberg’s love of the original shines through with imaginative translations from a score for large orchestra to a modest chamber ensemble, and he enriches the musical thought with new embellishments of counterpoint.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Le Tombeau de Couperin (arranged by Sam Suggs)

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, French poets frequently wrote short poems to commemorate the death of a notable person. Such poems were called tombeaux (“tombstones”). Usually the deceased person to be so honored was of the high nobility, though occasionally the death of a great poet, like Ronsard, might generate an outpouring of literary tributes. During the seventeenth century the tombeau tradition was adopted by French composers, who wrote their works most frequently for solo lute or solo harpsichord, usually in the form of a slow, stately dance movement. A group of French composers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, eager to recapture the history of the French musical tradition, began reusing the neo‑classical dance forms in their compositions. Ravel was the first to reuse the term tombeau in his tribute to his great predecessor François Couperin (1668‑1733), whose music shares with Ravel’s own a characteristic concern for grace, elegance, and decoration.

Ravel conceived it at first as a piano solo in six movements. It occupied him some three years, on and off, during the devastating course of World War I, which was personally shattering to him. It became a tombeau not only to the Baroque composer Couperin but also to deceased friends—each of the six movements was dedicated to a victim of the war. The piano version contained the following sections: Prélude, Fugue, Forlane, Rigaudon, Menuet, and Toccata. Ravel orchestrated the work in 1919, omitting two movements that he found too pianistic to be arranged. 

The music of Ravel’s Tombeau does not copy Couperin’s own style,  even in a very extended way. He simply hoped to pay tribute to the entire French musical tradition (then under attack, culturally as well as militarily, from Germany). The version to be performed here is an arrangement by Sam Suggs for a chamber ensemble consisting of flute, oboes, clarinet, five strings, harp, and piano. The Prélude, with its running sixteenth‑note figurations, makes extended demands on the articulation and breath‑control of the woodwind players. The Forlane is fetchingly graceful, delicate, and highly polished. Ravel was evidently especially fond of the Menuet, which was the last music to be seen on his music rack when he died in 1937. And the Rigaudon, with its brassy outbursts, brings the Tombeau to a cheerful and lively conclusion.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Appalachian Spring, Ballet for Martha (original version)\

American composers’ urge to write in a nationalistic, “American” style ran deeply before Aaron Copland created one way of doing so in the 1920s. His desire to become recognizably “American” led at first to an encounter with jazz elements (though never with actual jazz composition) in the Organ Symphony, Music for the Theater, and the Piano Concerto. Though these works marked Copland as a man to watch and hinted at the course of things to come, they were regarded by many as “difficult” scores. And his style became still more complex at the beginning of the 1930s with the Symphonic Ode, the Short Symphony, and the granitic Piano Variations.

But the social changes of the 1930s brought a general interest among the leftist artists and thinkers with whom Copland was friendly in attracting a wider audience than ever before, in addressing the common man and expressing his hopes, dreams, and desires by artistic means.

Copland was one of a generation of composers who shared this desire; he accomplished the change of viewpoint with notable success, simplifying his style for greater accessibility, but never ceasing to be utterly individual in sound or approach. The simplicity heightened certain elements that had not been apparent in his music earlier‑‑most notably an extraordinary tenderness that never becomes sentimental. At the same time, Copland’s music retained its energy and verve, its sense of space and color in laying out orchestral lines; thus his music is instantly recognizable as proceeding from the same musical imagination, no matter what its style.

Copland had already written two popular ballets based on western themes—a striking achievement in imagination for a composer city‑born and city‑bred. Both Billy the Kid, composed for Eugene Loring, and Rodeo, composed for Agnes de Mille, had been notable successes, so it could have been no surprise when Martha Graham asked him to compose a ballet for her. Graham presented him with a scenario to which he invented his music, scoring it for thirteen instruments because that was all that could be accommodated in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, where the premiere was to take place.

Copland had no title in mind as he composed. Just days before the premiere, he asked Graham, “What shall we call it?” (He had simply written the words “Ballet for Martha” on his score.) She suggested Appalachian Spring, a phrase she had liked from a poem by Hart Crane. And so it became. (In later years Copland was often amused when people told him, “I can feel how strongly the beauty of the Appalachians inspired you!”)

The scenario is a simple one, touching on primal issues of marriage and survival, on the eternal regeneration suggested by spring. It is set in the Pennsylvania hills early in the nineteenth century.

The bride‑to‑be and the young farmer‑husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.

Despite the limitation to thirteen instruments, there is no feeling of restraint in the score. Even when writing for full orchestra, Copland has always tended to produce a lean sound, lithe and athletic; the use of the smaller ensemble simply highlights that tendency in his work.      All of Copland’s three major ballet scores make use of old folk melodies, but Appalachian Spring uses the least; the only tune to pre‑date the composition is the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which serves as the basis of a series of variations near the end of the ballet. But the tune also plays a background role in unifying the entire score; from the introduction onward, we frequently hear a three‑note motive that is easily recognizable as the first five notes of “Simple Gifts” in outline form (rising as sol-do-mi). From this motive comes the entire triadic sound of the ballet. It employs a harmonic style often referred to “white‑note harmony” because its elements can be found by playing on all the white notes of the piano keyboard; this diatonic sound, even when employed in chords dissonant by traditional harmonic standards, seems fresh and clean compared to the endless, sometimes overheated, chromaticism of late romantic music. When used here, to evoke a new world, an open frontier being settled by hardy individuals, Copland makes it by turns strong, assertive, even acerbic, or delicate and tender. Through all its changing moods, Copland’s score calls up a sense of the optimism and courage, the vigor and energy, and the deep wellspring of faith and hope that we like to regard as characteristic of the American experience.

© Steven Ledbetter (