Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Cheryl Fries

The Mysterious Bruckner
Anton Bruckner’s compositions and legacy have remained a constant fascination and mystery. Bruckner has garnered a rather bizarre reputational legacy, accumulating several different personas: death obsessed, anti-social, a drunk, and a country bumpkin. It seems nearly impossible to determine exactly who Bruckner the person was, but it is clear that his colossal symphonies continue to intrigue musicians.

Obsessive Tendencies
Bruckner deeply admired the music of Richard Wagner; it has been said Bruckner’s symphonies are the symphonies Wagner never wrote. While composers like Strauss and Mahler were leading the helm of German modernism, Bruckner strongly upheld and expounded upon the musical conservatism of Wagner. Despite his humble beginnings, Bruckner was an intellectual and as such was deeply insecure and self-critical of his works, which contributed to the constant revision of his symphonies. Bruckner had a lot of obsessive tendencies when composing. One characteristic feature of his nine symphonies is the length and size, which Johannes Brahms offhandedly described as “symphonic boa constrictors.” Bruckner also had a fascination with counting, which ensured that his symphonies were masterfully crafted down to every last note and rhythm.

The Music
The most characteristic feature of the 5th Symphony is the contrapuntal style, which is first highlighted in the opening chorale of the first movement. The overall structure of this movement is an elongated sonata form that slowly builds, beginning softly and ending triumphantly, introducing themes in blocks of contrasting music. The second movement serves as a theme and variations, with the opening theme being introduced by the solo oboe at the start of the movement. The last variation uses the opening theme, but weaves underneath a contrapuntal moving line in the strings alongside a chorale in the brass that echoes the beginning of the symphony. The third movement alternates between two contrasting styles. It begins with a faster, menacing theme in a minor key and then eventually transitions into a sweeter, more pastoral theme. Throughout the movement, the dueling themes fight for the spotlight at times blending and weaving into one another. The finale begins with reminiscent themes from the earlier movements, the opening chorale, second movement oboe solo, and themes from the scherzo. Near the end of the movement Bruckner’s mastery of counterpoint is featured in an extensive double fugue.

R. Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

Notes by TŌN oboist Jasper Igusa

The Merry Prankster
Richard Strauss depicts the pranks and misadventures of the German peasant folk hero Till Eulenspiegel in his tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks). The title character, an infamous trickster always portrayed as the protagonist, precedes Strauss’ work by hundreds of years. His origins are murky, but Till’s first recorded appearance was in a German chapbook in 1515, published by an unknown author who signed their writings only with an “N.” The trickster archetype of Till Eulenspiegel has been adapted since then, including a notable novel written in 1867 that characterizes him as a heroic Flemish prankster during the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule in the Netherlands.

The Music
Strauss’ rendition sticks closer to Till’s origin story. His work opens with what has been described as the musical equivalent to a “Once upon a time” prologue. The piece, and the story it tells, begins in earnest with the first of two themes that represents Till Eulenspiegel himself, played by the French Horn. The orchestra takes over this theme and concludes this section with two repeated notes. Then the second theme arrives, played by an unaccompanied E-flat clarinet. Although some scholars have suggested a detailed sequence of events that Strauss has depicted, from a horse ride to a marketplace to a run-in with the Teutonic clergy, Strauss was not in the business of assigning a detailed story. One is in a much better position to appreciate Strauss’ work if the bulk of the “story” is left for their own imagination and interpretation. That is, save for the graphic ending of the work.

A New Ending
In the original publication, Till dies of the plague in 1350; the infamous “Black Death.” In Strauss’ work, however, Till meets his end at the gallows, sentenced to death for blasphemy. The tutti brass section represents the strong arm of the law while the E-flat clarinet interjects in vain with its theme. The clarinet belts out what sounds like a death scream as the drop begins, and pizzicato strings conclude his death scene. Immediately following, the “Once upon a time” material returns, affirming that the character of Till Eulenspiegel lives on, even though Strauss’ rendition has come to a close.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

Notes by TŌN flutist Rebecca Tutunick

Inspiration From Grief
Grief has inspired some of the most monumental pieces across all art forms. For Modest Mussorgsky, loss spurred what is one of his most well-known pieces in the repertory. Following the young death of Victor Hartmann, an architect and artist, Vladimir Stasov organized a posthumous exhibition of Hartmann’s works in the spring of 1874. After attending the exhibition, Hartmann’s close friend Mussorgsky was quickly inspired to create a tribute to his departed friend, and by that June, Pictures at an Exhibition was complete.

An Array of Arrangements
Pictures at an Exhibition was composed as a piano suite, and though Mussorgsky never orchestrated his piece, many felt the music called for varied timbral colors. Pictures at an Exhibition has been transformed to fit most any setting. One of my own favorite musical memories was in my junior year of high school, performing Pictures at an Exhibition arranged for full marching band. Leonard Slatkin, whom we are honored to have here with us today, is among those who have reorchestrated this monumental work. He took Maurice Ravel’s famous orchestral arrangement, identified what Ravel changed or removed from Mussorgsky’s composition, and then altered the writing to better reflect the original piano score.

A Tour of the Exhibition
Mussorgsky places the listener in his own shoes as he walks through Stasov’s exhibition of Hartmann’s works, stopping at pictures that catch his attention, and at times, taking a moment to think back on his dear friend. The work begins with a Promenade, which leads Mussorgsky into the gallery. The themes heard within this introduction will return to reflect the movement as he walks from picture to picture. Mussorgsky takes the listener through eleven images, two of which are combined into one musical representation, ending with the movement that much of the audience will be anxiously waiting for! “The Great Gate of Kiev” is the most well-known excerpt of Pictures at an Exhibition, with its wonderfully majestic melodies and imitations of Russian reed organs and carillon bells. Though much of Hartmann’s artistic output did not survive, Mussorgsky brings his work to life musically, for us all to admire.

Brahms’/Slatkin’s Brahmsiana

Notes by arranger Leonard Slatkin

The concept of the transcription has been around for almost as long as written music has existed. Numerous composers and arrangers have felt compelled to recast works, and several of these pieces were staples of the concert hall when I was growing up. Years went by before I realized that Bach-Stokowski were actually two different people.

Over the course of the pandemic, many of us have had the opportunity to reexamine aspects of our lives that had perhaps faded a bit. During one of my walks in my neighborhood, I had my iPhone on shuffle mode when the Andante from the Third Piano Quartet by Brahms, a piece of great sentimental value to me, popped into my headset. As I listened and reminisced, I started to think about other instruments that might take over certain melodic or accompaniment lines.

When I returned home, I sat down with the original and began to sketch out what an orchestral version might look and sound like. As completion of this project loomed, I started pondering other Brahms pieces that could undergo an orchestral treatment to form a suite.

There are compelling reasons to recast pieces of music, perhaps most importantly, to bring them to a broader public through performance by soloists and ensembles other than those for which they were first intended. This exposure might even encourage some people to listen to the original. Second, “re-composing” provides an opportunity for the transcriptionist to embrace music by a beloved composer while also asserting his or her own creative muse based on years of experience, for example, conducting an orchestra.

We will be performing these transcriptions as a set, in the order that makes the most sense to me musically. But others may choose to present them individually, or interspersed with other selections. The English horn and bass clarinet, neither of which Brahms had at his disposal, are included to give a new color to the existing ensemble. My intent was to emulate how these pieces might have sounded around the time of Brahms. There are no notes, rhythms, or harmonies other than those provided by the master.

Cindy McTee’s Circuits

Notes by TŌN violinist Misty Drake

A Fresh Approach
The 1970s–80s set America on a new trajectory of musical innovation. Steve Reich and Philip Glass were among the most influential names that charted a fresh approach to compositional techniques. Minimalism not only became a movement that pioneered new sounds of a modern America, but also influenced the upcoming generation of American composers. Cindy McTee is no exception. Her compositions embody the same Americana spirit, while incorporating avant-garde style from her time spent in Poland. Krzysztof Penderecki offered McTee compositional lessons in exchange for teaching his children the English Language—the ultimate dream for any young composer!

Versatile Repetition
In 1990, Cindy McTee composed the concert overture titled Circuits. This piece highlights the simplistic, yet versatile role of repetition. Persistent 16th notes mimic the industrial clangs of modern machines, and are reinstated by ostinato motifs throughout the piece. Circuits is dedicated to her husband and conductor, Leonard Slatkin.

From the Composer
In the score, the composer notes “Circuits was written in 1990 for the Denton Chamber Orchestra of Denton, Texas. The title is meant to characterize several important aspects of the work’s musical language: a strong reliance upon circuitous structures such as ostinatos; the use of a formal design incorporating numerous, recurring short sections; and the presence of an unrelenting, kinetic energy achieved through the use of 16th notes at a constant tempo of 152 beats per minute. The inclusion of jazz elements and the playful manipulation of musical materials using syncopation, sudden transposition, and juxtaposition are also characteristic of the work.”

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Leningrad

Notes by TŌN violist Celia Daggy

The Dichotomy of Fame and Rebellion
Dmitri Shostakovich was himself both a distributor and victim of Soviet propaganda. For most of his professional life, he had to toe the line between pleasing the state with his music, and remaining true to himself and his people. Some of his works won accolades from Stalin’s regime and others were swiftly banned. Seeing his own image be tossed back and forth was undoubtedly a source of extreme anxiety for our dear Dmitri. Despite being the most famous Russian composer of his day, he allegedly kept a packed suitcase at his front door at all times in case he were to be taken away by the state in the middle of the night, so as to not disturb his sleeping family. This dichotomy of fame and rebellion is easily heard in Shostakovich’s music.

Tyranny and Totalitarianism
The Seventh Symphony, nicknamed the Leningrad (something of a propaganda piece itself), received great praise from the Soviet government. It is a narrative work; you will hear in the first movement the theme and drums of the Nazi soldiers marching into the city, and by the end of the symphony, the Russians eventual victory in capturing Leningrad back. The work is greatly, almost grotesquely nationalist, and reportedly had the entire audience weeping at its premiere. However, there is an underlying message about the horrors of fascism – and not just the Nazis. Shostakovich privately revealed that the symphony “[is] not only about fascism but about our country . . . tyranny and totalitarianism.”

Many of us can swiftly identify propaganda as it appears in history books—posters with cartoonish political figures and some sort of obvious state-sponsored message, many of which seem exaggerated and absurd. We, as enlightened members of the 21st century, wonder how such messages could control a society so strongly. Yet we may not be as attuned to identifying propaganda when it is under our own noses. It is not as obvious as those characterized posters from the days of old. Think about those questionable news stories we all hear on TV or the internet, where facts may be distorted and altered to fit a certain agenda, or cherry-picked to only show part of the whole story. Are these not themselves forms of propaganda?

William L. Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony

Notes by TŌN bassist Tristen Jarvis

A Distinctly American Work
William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony is a luminous, sophisticated, and very distinctly “American” work that bridges the language of post-slavery Negro spirituals with the timbres and aesthetics of the European symphony orchestra. Already celebrated for his popular choral arrangements of these spirituals, Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony catapulted his reputation after its wildly successful world premiere at Carnegie Hall by the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski. The New York World-Telegram praised the piece for its “imagination, warmth, drama – (and) sumptuous orchestration.” After visiting seven countries in West Africa to study indigenous African music in 1952, Dawson revised the Negro Folk Symphony into the version that you will hear today, which is more infused with a rhythmic foundation inspired by those African influences from his sabbatical; he wanted those who heard it to know that it was “unmistakably not the work of a white man.”

The Bond of Africa
The opening thirty seconds of the piece contain a soaring blues gesture by a solo French horn, quickly morphing into a brief declaration by the woodwinds and trombones that evokes moody, Cotton Club-era undertones of an Ellington big-band ballad fused with Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Not even a minute in, the strings interrupt with a tender, cinematic excerpt out of a Hollywood film score that launches into an opera overture-like formal structure for the remainder of the movement, alluding to classic orchestral themes such as the opening to Bizet’s Carmen and Smetana’s Bartered Bride.

Hope in the Night
In my opinion, the most rewarding part of the Negro Folk Symphony is this second movement. Lush and brightly sophisticated, imagine the opening to Stravinsky’s “Berceuse (Lullaby)” from The Firebird fused with the minor-blues language of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Dawson described this movement as an “atmosphere of the humdrum life of a people whose bodies were baked by the sun and lashed with the whip for two hundred and fifty years; whose lives were proscribed before they were born.”

O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!
A dazzling, high-paced finale punctuates this remarkable work in a style that draws upon mid-nineteenth century European romanticism while foreshadowing the writing styles of American composers such as Leonard Bernstein and George Walker.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7

Notes by TŌN oboist JJ Silvey

“As a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms with great vehemence asunder . . . at the entrance of a forte he jumped into the air.”

So Louis Spohr, the renowned German composer and violinist, described Beethoven’s tempestuous conducting at the premiere of the Seventh Symphony. The occasion was a patriotic one. On December 8, 1813, Spohr, along with a starry group of musicians including Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Antonio Salieri, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, gathered to play in an orchestra led by Beethoven as part of a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. For this event the composer, by then an emphatic critic of the megalomaniacal Napoleon, debuted his Seventh Symphony alongside another new work, Wellington’s Victory, written to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Joseph Bonaparte’s forces in the Battle of Vitoria.

Revolutionary Zeal
Though the Seventh Symphony does not share the explicit political immediacy of Wellington’s Victory, it is impossible to dissociate it from Beethoven’s resolute idealism. Even at a time in his career plagued by worsening deafness and dire financial hardship, Beethoven was able to suffuse the work with a palpable sense of revolutionary zeal. As a whole, the symphony is exuberant, grand, and unbridled in its dual capacities for jubilance and sincerity. The first movement begins with a gracefully unfolding oboe solo punctuated by chordal “hits” from the full orchestra. The rest of the poco sostenuto introduction alternates between poised, lilting wind passages and stentorian iterations from the orchestra which, before long, give way to a cheerful vivace permeated by lively dotted rhythms.

Triumph Over Tyranny
The second movement, though marked allegretto, is the work’s dramatic zenith. A simple, serious rhythmic theme is introduced by low strings and is soon interwoven with a grave countermelody. These two ideas compete in increasing force as more instruments take them up, building steadily to an intense, climactic scene. This gives way to a dreamlike, yearning middle section, soon interrupted by a re-introduction of the theme. Another climax results, this time texturally enriched by deeper layers of Beethoven’s characteristically masterful counterpoint. In the third movement, a rollicking presto, fleet, playful wind solos are heard among bombastic, high-spirited dance episodes. The spectacle is occasionally curtailed by the emergence of an unhurried, stately theme. Finally, the fourth movement arrives to declare victory. Beethoven, the revolutionary, has had an ecstatic vision of mankind’s final triumph over tyranny.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto

Notes by TŌN trumpet player Maggie Tsan-Jung Wei

The Background
Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C major, Op. 56, is more similar to a piano trio than a concerto, with the whole orchestra acting as an accompanist to build up texture and add different colors. Most of the time, it is a competition or cooperation among three soloists. The three of them may play against each other, or support each other in different phrases. What makes this piece unique is the instrumentation. Beethoven was successful not only at putting these three solo instruments together in front of a whole orchestra, but also at keeping them balanced. Acting more as partners, the three instruments do not dominate over each other. Even now, it is probably the only well-known triple sonata for these three instruments. However, the work was not as successful as it is now when Beethoven first composed it around the year 1804. It was not officially performed until about four years after it was published. Surprisingly, it did not receive great critiques during the nineteenth century. However, the fact that people are still performing the concerto nowadays proves the value of this piece.

The Music
I certainly cannot choose my favorite movement in this concerto. The three movements have their own unique texture and musical language. The first movement is in sonata form, which is one of the most common forms for first movements in symphonies or concertos. It can be separated into three parts based on the motive. In this movement I really enjoy the beginning, when the piece opens with the lower string section, and the rest of the orchestra slowly builds up and introduces the three soloists. The second movement instills a sacred and peaceful feeling in me, almost as if I was standing by myself in the middle of an empty cathedral. The last movement, just like other traditional concertos, is a fast movement. It is joyful and delightful, and also brings back the tension and the cooperation between the three soloists.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Philip McNaughton

An Icon
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, also known as the “Fate Symphony,” is arguably one of the most iconic pieces of classical music in the canon. Its four-note opening motif evokes an immediate reaction from not only the most avid classical music appreciator, but also from someone who has never stepped foot into a concert hall before. It has been played by world-class orchestras in almost every city around the world, and has even been heard in McDonald’s commercials. The work was composed from 1804 to 1808 and was based off of three of Beethoven’s original sketches. The piece premiered in Vienna in 1808 at a momentous all-Beethoven program that is said to have lasted four hours, at which the composer himself conducted and performed on the piano. The work was one of several premieres on the program, including Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

Symphony V for Victory
The nickname of the symphony, “Fate,” which was not given by Beethoven himself, comes from the four note opening of the piece. The most recognizable portion, “short-short-short-long,” was thought to resemble fate knocking at a subject’s door, and is used as a motif throughout each movement of the work. Because of the symphony’s popularity, the theme was commonly used during the second World War as a way to mark a victory over the radio systems. In Morse code, “short-short-short-long” spelled out the letter “V” for victory. The theme would be played whenever the Allied forces found success in their endeavors. It became a powerful symbol of hope.

A Gateway Work
Whether or not Beethoven himself thought of this opening motif as fate knocking on the door remains unclear. What does ring true is that it was fate for this piece to live on forever. I think of this work as a gateway to classical music for the average person. The opening four notes are recognized by practically everyone around the world, but it’s what follows those notes that makes the symphony magical. The opening hooks the audience, but the rest of the piece keeps listeners planted in their seats, amazed at what contemporary and rich stories classical music can paint. The “Fate Symphony” has held the fate of classical music in its hands for centuries, and I believe the piece will continue to be a riveting gateway work for many more centuries to come.