Arthur Honegger’s Rugby

Notes by TŌN bassist Kaden Henderson

The Composer
When thinking about the great orchestral tone poems in our repertoire, the mind immediately drifts to the likes of Richard Strauss and works like Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, and Don Quixote. Often overlooked, however, is Arthur Honegger, a Swiss composer who largely composed in France during the early-to-mid 20th century. It was in France that Honegger wrote his three tone poems: Pacific 231, Rugby, and Symphonic Movement No. 3. Although not as well-known in America due to his untimely death in 1955 on the eve of a major American tour, he is widely known and appreciated in Europe, where his face adorned the 20-Franc banknote from 1996–2017. He was a member of Les Six, a group of French composers, including Poulenc and Milhaud, that paved the way for modern French classical music in the 20th century.

Full Contact Music
Honegger’s second tone poem, entitled Rugby, which we will be hearing today, was composed in 1928. Although it bears the name Rugby, the composer himself insisted that this work was not programmatic in a traditional sense. Despite what Honegger may have said, it takes little imagination to find oneself in the middle of the pitch dodging tackles left and right from the very first note. Immediately from the downbeat it is apparent that Honegger is not alluding to two-hand-touch rugby, but rather the sport in its full contact, “hold no prisoners” variety. The very first notes from the strings hit the audience like a ton of bricks as the cascading strings sweep us into a musical dogpile. Violent rhythms and loud brass proclamations provide an energetic backdrop for the strings to demonstrate their virtuosic feats of agility and precision. Honegger really shines in the way he is able to craft dissonant and often grotesque chords into something that is nothing short of brilliant and endlessly entertaining.

Lyrical Beauty
Unlike his more dreamy and impressionistic counterparts in Les Six, Honegger seems to thrive in a darker landscape. This work is loud, brash, and orchestrated very heavily. The pointillist bass line offers an almost conversational rebuttal against the cascading violins, much like playful banter on the field between friends. Although Honegger often employs striking dissonance, there are moments of exceptional lyrical beauty. My favorite moment comes about half way into the work, after a rather heated argument between the bass section and the bassoons. Just as it sounds there is about to be a physical altercation, listen for the violins to sweep in to calm the growing tension with a melody that sounds straight out of a Tchaikovsky ballet. Moments like these are sure to bring smiles to the faces of Schoenberg and Rossini lovers alike. Now put on your helmet, secure your elbow pads, and get ready for a musical sporting match like you’ve never heard before!

Stravinsky’s Divertimento, The Fairy’s Kiss Suite

Notes by TŌN cellist Sarah Schoeffler

The History
Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss) is a one-act ballet composed in 1928 by the Russian pianist, composer, and conductor Igor Stravinsky. Over the years, the ballet underwent several prominent revisions and adaptations. One of the most lasting results from such efforts is the Divertimento, an orchestral suite comprised of music taken from the ballet. It is the result of a collaboration between Stravinsky and violinist Samuel Dushkin. In 1932, for Dushkin, Stravinsky created an arrangement of The Fairy’s Kiss for violin and piano alone entitled Divertimento, and two years later he orchestrated the same music into the concert suite heard here. The concert suite contains approximately half of the music from the original ballet.

Adaptation and Admiration
The ballet itself was Stravinsky’s adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Ice Maiden, and was Stravinsky’s chance to pay homage to Tchaikovsky. Despite his derision of romanticism, Stravinsky had long admired Tchaikovsky, treasuring a childhood memory of when he caught a glimpse of the great composer at a concert in St. Petersburg. In The Fairy’s Kiss, Stravinsky combined fragments from Tchaikovsky with his own composition so persuasively that Stravinsky later said he lost track of what belonged to whom.

The Music and Story
The Divertimento is comprised of four movements: Sinfonia, Danses suisses, Scherzo, and Pas de deux. Sinfonia is taken from the introductory scene of the ballet, and portrays a disoriented mother lost with her child in a storm. As in the Hans Christian Anderson tale, the fairy’s sprites steal the baby away from the mother. You can hear Stravinsky’s characteristic rhythmic brilliance in this movement. The next movement, Danses suisses, depicts the engagement party for the child, now a grown man. In the Scherzo movement, the fairy leads the young man to a mill where his betrothed is with her friends. In the last movement, Pas de deux, the lovers’ dance, we enjoy some of the most exquisitely beautiful writing of the entire work.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 9

Notes by TŌN horn player Emily Buehler

A Masterpiece Unheard
Could you imagine completing what you think to be one of your greatest works, never to hear it performed? This is exactly what happened to Franz Schubert and his Symphony No. 9. He finished composing the piece in 1826, but it wasn’t performed until 1839 . . . 11 years after his death! People simply didn’t know it existed. Schubert entrusted his scores to his friend Franz von Schober, who ended up leaving them with Schubert’s brother, Ferdinand. Apparently, no one understood their value or took any action to get them published until 1829. Ferdinand enlisted the help of Robert Schumann, who was able to list Schubert’s posthumous works in the newspaper. Unfortunately, the response was underwhelming.

Schumann’s Discovery
Two years later Schumann was in Vienna visiting the graves of Beethoven and Schubert. He recalled Ferdinand still lived nearby, and was able to visit. Famously, Schumann described what he found: “He [Ferdinand] knew of me because of that veneration for his brother which I have so often publicly expressed; told me and showed me many things. . . . Finally, he allowed me to see those treasured compositions of Schubert’s which he still possesses. The sight of this hoard of riches thrilled me with joy; where to begin, where to end! Among other things, he drew my attention to the scores of several symphonies, many of which have never as yet been heard, but were shelved as too heavy and turgid. There, among the piles, lay a heavy volume of 130 pages, dated March 1828 at the top of the first sheet. The manuscript, including the date and a number of corrections, is entirely in Schubert’s hand, which often appears to have been flying as fast as his pen could go. The work, a symphony in C, Schubert’s last and greatest, had never been performed.”

The Music
The piece opens with a slow horn call, turning into a noble Andante, and whirlwinds into a riveting Allegro. You can recognize a kind of metamorphosis of the opening horn call to the quicker section, and this is harkened to once again at the final moments of the movement. The second movement can not be of more contrast. The character here is grave, yet march-like. Schubert has a beautiful way of moving from major to minor, and holds onto that in this movement, each modal movement done with intrinsic intention and meaning. Schubert wrote, about the ending of this movement: “A horn is heard from a distance. It seems to come from another sphere. Here everything listens, as if a heavenly spirit were wandering through the orchestra.“ As we move along to the third movement, you may find your feet tapping to this dance music! It is rumored that Schubert would entertain friends all night by playing dance tunes “off the cuff” in an improvisatory style! This was a natural way of writing for him. In the elegant final movement, Schubert hints back to important key relationships, themes, and rhythms from previous movements, and connects them into something new.

Egon Wellesz’s Prospero’s Incantations

Notes by TŌN violist Leonardo Vásquez Chacón

The Inspiration
“Now I will believe that there are unicorns,” says Sebastian, a character depicted in Shakespeare’s famous play The Tempest. His representation of the supernatural and the magical provided the inspiration for Austrian composer Egon Wellesz’s fantastic work from 1936, Prospero’s Incantations, Op. 53.

The Music
The music sets five important characters and moments from the story into individual movements. The first of these, “Prospero’s Incantation,” represents Prospero, the main character in the play, and serves as the title for the entire piece. As a man who learned the power of magic, enabling him to control the forces of nature and even bring the dead back to life, Prospero’s incantations are translated into music through slow and mysterious orchestral colors interspersed with brass fanfares. Here, Wellesz uses the most “arcane” of musical techniques, a fugue: a phrase is first presented by the low strings, followed by the other instruments playing the same phrase, which creates interweaving parts. The second movement depicts the horrible storm amidst the sea that Ariel is causing at the behest of Prospero. This frenetic scherzo is full of interjections by all the instruments of the orchestra, but at the very end we hear some calm fanfares from the first movement that take us to a soothing ending. Ariel’s song, which in the play notifies Ferdinand of his father’s death in the shipwreck and leads him to Prospero, is mostly slow and mournful, but one can also hear moments of ecstasy and sublime beauty as the movement comes to an end. The movement based on Caliban is grotesque and savage, just like the character itself. The fifth movement starts by depicting the glorious marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. This was Prospero’s goal from the very beginning, so that he could reclaim his nobility. The work ends with Prospero’s epilogue in which he renounces the powers of sorcery and requests the audience to set him free with their applause.

A Musician’s Take
I have really enjoyed going from not knowing anything about Egon Wellesz to absolutely loving this piece. I hear hints of Bruckner and Mahler, but also a lot of Hindemith’s sound in Prospero’s Incantations, and this always keeps me interested. I think it should be noted that this work literally saved the composer’s life, as he had traveled to Amsterdam to hear it performed on the same day that the Nazis invaded Austria. Because of this, I do not think it’s crazy to think that he actually tapped into some of Prospero’s supernatural power.