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Michael Steinberg's 1996 volume The Symphony: A Reader's Guide received glowing reviews across America. It was hailed as "wonderfully clear...recommended warmly to music lovers on all levels" (Washington Post), "informed and thoughtful" (Chicago Tribune), and "composed by a master stylist" (San Francisco Chronicle). Seiji Ozawa wrote that "his beautiful and effortless prose speaks from the heart." Michael Tilson Thomas called The Symphony "an essential book for any concertgoer."
Now comes the companion volume—The Concerto: A Listener's Guide. In this marvelous book, Steinberg discusses over 120 works, ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach in the 1720s to John Adams in 1994. Readers will find here the heart of the standard repertory, among them Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, eighteen of Mozart's piano concertos, all the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, and major works by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Bruch, Dvora'k, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Elgar, Sibelius, Strauss, and Rachmaninoff. The book also provides luminous introductions to the achievement of twentieth-century masters such as Arnold Schoenberg, Be'la Barto'k, Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Aaron Copland, and Elliott Carter. Steinberg examines the work of these musical giants with unflagging enthusiasm and bright style. He is a master of capturing the expressive, dramatic, and emotional values of the music and of conveying the historical and personal context in which these wondrous works were composed. His writing blends impeccable scholarship, deeply felt love of music, and entertaining whimsy.
Here then is a superb journey through one of music's richest and most diverse forms, with Michael Steinberg along as host, guide, and the best of companions.
|The Brandenburg Concertos||11|
|Harpsichord (or Violin) Concerto in D Minor||15|
|Piano Concerto No. 1||37|
|Piano Concerto No. 2||39|
|Piano Concerto No. 3||41|
|Violin Concerto No. 2||45|
|Piano Concerto No. 1||52|
|Piano Concerto No. 2||55|
|Piano Concerto No. 3||59|
|Piano Concerto No. 4||64|
|Piano Concerto No. 5||71|
|Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Cello||76|
|Piano Concerto No. 1||106|
|Piano Concerto No. 2||114|
|Double Concerto for Violin and Cello||128|
|Oration, for Cello and Orchestra||132|
|Symphony for Cello and Orchestra||143|
|Violin Concerto No. 1||150|
|Scottish Fantasy, for Violin and Orchestra||152|
|Double Concerto for Harpsichord, Piano, and Two Orchestras||165|
|Poeme, for Violin and Orchestra||171|
|Der Schwanendreher, for Viola and Orchestra||209|
|Trauermusik, for Viola and Orchestra||212|
|Symphonie espagnole, for Violin and Orchestra||220|
|Piano Concerto No. 1||237|
|Piano Concerto No. 2||240|
|Concerto for Seven Winds, Timpani, Percussion, and String||254|
|Polyptyque, for Violin and Two String Orchestra||255|
|Piano Concerto No. 1||262|
|Horn Concerto No. 3||276|
|Piano Concerto No. 9, K. 271||281|
|Piano Concerto No. 11, K. 413||283|
|Piano Concerto No. 12, K. 414||284|
|Piano Concerto No. 13, K. 415||286|
|Piano Concerto No. 14, K. 449||288|
|Piano Concerto No. 15, K. 450||289|
|Piano Concerto No. 16, K. 451||293|
|Piano Concerto No. 17, K. 453||295|
|Piano Concerto No. 18, K. 456||298|
|Piano Concerto No. 19, K. 459||300|
|Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466||303|
|Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467||305|
|Piano Concerto No. 22, K. 482||307|
|Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488||310|
|Piano Concerto No. 24, K. 491||312|
|Piano Concerto No. 25, K. 503||313|
|Piano Concerto No. 26, K. 537||317|
|Piano Concerto No. 27, K. 595||319|
|Violin Concerto No. 3, K. 216||324|
|Violin Concerto No. 4, K. 218||325|
|Violin Concerto No. 5, K. 219||326|
|Sinfonia concertante, for Violin and Viola||328|
|Piano Concerto No. 1||337|
|Piano Concerto No. 2||344|
|Piano Concerto No. 3||347|
|Violin Concerto No. 1||349|
|Violin Concerto No. 2||352|
|Piano Concerto No. 2||356|
|Piano Concerto No. 3||362|
|Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, for Piano and Orchestra||367|
|Piano Concerto in G||371|
|Concerto for Piano Left-Hand and Orchestra||375|
|Piano Concerto No. 2||389|
|Piano Concerto No. 4||391|
|Concertstuck, for Four Horns||426|
|Cello Concerto No. 1||434|
|Piano Concerto No. 1||436|
|Violin Concerto No. 1||439|
|Burleske, for Piano and Orchestra||449|
|Horn Concerto No. 1||453|
|Horn Concerto No. 2||456|
|Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra||463|
|Piano Concerto No. 1||473|
|Piano Concerto No. 2||479|
|Variations on a Rococo Theme, for Cello and Orchestra||488|
|Nobody Knows de Trouble I See, for Trumpet and Orchestra||502|
John Coolidge Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts,
on February 15, 1947, and now lives in Berkeley, California.
2. Chaconne: "Body through which the dream flows"
Adams began his Violin Concerto on 7 January 1993. The official completion date of the score was 1 November 1993, although some changes of detail continued to arrive for two or three weeks after that and a few were made during rehearsal. The work was a joint commission by the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony, and the New York City Ballet. The first performance was given in Minneapolis on 19 January 1994 by Jorja Fleezanis with Edo de Waart and the Minnesota Orchestra. Partly in collaboration with the violinist Gidon Kremer, who had been chosen to give the first performance with the London Symphony, Adams made some further revisions after the first performance. Adams dedicated the work to the late David Huntley of the publishing firm Boosey & Hawkes: American composers in recent years had no better friend. Adams has written: "[David Huntley] died not long after the premiere .... An arduous trip from New York to Minneapolis to attend the premiere during one of the coldest winters on record turned out to be the last of his many travels, a labor of love that I hope was at least partially rewarded by this dedication and by this piece."
Solo violin, two flutes (two doubling piccolo and alto flute), two oboes (two doubling English horn), two clarinets (two doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, marimba, two low tom-toms, five roto toms, tubular bells, three bongos, two congas, two bass drums, suspended cymbal, tambourine, three high timbales, guiro, vibraphone (bowed), claves, high cowbell, timpani, two synthesizers (Yamaha SY-99 and Kurzweil K-2000), and strings.
John Adams's father was a good amateur clarinetist and saxophonist. The clarinet was John's first instrument, too, though he chose to hone his skills to professional level: my first awareness of him was as a member of Sarah Caldwell's opera orchestra in Boston and as an occasional substitute in the Boston Symphony. He was then a student at Harvard. His principal mentor there was Leon Kirchner, for whose teaching, charged with imagination and intellectual vigor, Adams still feels profound gratitude. As a graduation present, his parents gave him John Cage's Silence, a collection of lectures and writings of which Jill Johnston said when it appeared in 1962 that "those who read [it] should find it difficult to curl up inside any comfortable box made before picking up the book." It certainly called into question everything that his musical experiences so far stood for. "I don't think my parents knew what they were giving," Adams reflected years later. He found "the seductiveness of Cage's reasoning "irresistible," a condition hardly disturbed by his finding the holes in Cage's arguments. Something that particularly stirred him was Cage's emphasis on the importance of sound itself as a physical entity as distinct from the emphasis, standard in teaching and criticism, on the organization of sound.
Harvard graduates tended typically to think about going to Europe on a Fulbright or a Paine Travelling Fellowship, but Adams now wanted to remove himself from that world. His response was to go 3,000 miles in the opposite direction, to California. At first he worked in an Oakland warehouse; then, in 1972, he joined the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory, where he taught composition, founded a new-music ensemble, conducted the orchestra, and ran a graduate program in analysis and history.
When Edo de Waart became the San Francisco Symphony's music director in 1977, he let it be known that he would be glad of some help in guiding him through the unfamiliar territory of current American music. Someone proposed John Adams, and a warm professional and personal friendship was born. Adams's work as de Waart's new-music adviser was so effective that the relationship became the model for the composer-in-residence program established at many American orchestras in the 1980s. Adams himself became the San Francisco Symphony's first composer-in-residence, serving in that capacity for four years.
De Waart arranged for the Symphony to tender Adams a commission, and Adams responded with Harmonium, choral settings of John Donne and Emily Dickinson. At the time, Adams was known in the profession, although not very widely, and in the Bay Area's new-music community. At the premiere of Harmonium, Adams was cheered no less than the distinguished pianist who played the Emperor Concerto, and after that his life was never the same. His next San Francisco commission, Grand Pianola Music, got him entree with the New York Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. In 1985 de Waart introduced an enormously difficult and ambitious score, Harmonielehre, named for Arnold Schoenberg's searching treatise of 1911, which Adams has described as a sort of Talmud of Western music theory. Orchestras everywhere, as far afield as Japan, Australia, and the Soviet Union, took up Harmonielehre, and the extraordinary success of that dauntingly difficult thirty-eight-minute work gave the lie to the received wisdom according to which only short and easy new pieces were admitted into the working repertory.
Harmonielehre, particularly in its powerful slow movement (called "The Anfortas Wound"), also showed that Adams had a lyric and expressive gift that singled him out among his colleagues of no matter what compositional school. This component of Adams's artistic personality was further stretched and developed in his opera Nixon in China, a remarkable amalgam of wit and emotional poignancy. Just as "The Anfortas Wound" was the departure strip for the most deeply touching portions of Nixon in China (Pat Nixon's aria in Act II and all of the introspective closing scene), so Nixon became the launching place for Adams's second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, whose subject is the hijacking of the Achille Lauro. Since then, he has expanded his language and consolidated his position with such works as The Wound-Dresser (after Whitman), El Dorado, Fearful Symmetries, the Chamber Symphony, and the "song play" for pop singers and rock band, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky.
When he first went to California, Adams was deeply involved with the work of John Cage and some of the younger figures of the then avant-garde, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, and Christian Wolff. During a three-year immersion with electronic music he built his own synthesizer. Paradoxically it was that immersion and his involvement with technical points of tuning that led to what he called his "diatonic conversion. It made me realize the resonant power of consonance. There's such a lack of resonance in atonal music with all the upper partials clashing against each other. There's seldom a sense of depth or of sympathetic vibration. The composers that mean the most to me are those whose music is music of sustained resonance." Adams's own purest essay in consonant minimalism is an orchestral work named Common Tones in Simple Time (1980), music that still leaves me dazzled with the lustre of its sound, enchanted by the purr of its engine, delightfully jolted by its powerful lifts into new harmonies, and happy in its deep calm.
At the time of Harmonium, the examples he cited were Beethoven, Sibelius "for sure" (particularly the Seventh Symphony), "the orchestral Wagner," early Stravinsky, Steve Reich. By the time he wrote Harmonielehre, he was ready to add early Schoenberg, particularly Gurrelieder. But even then, Adams voiced reservations about the relentlessly consonant, low-metabolism way of composing that was then coming to be known as minimalism: "[It] really can be a bore. You get those Great Prairies of non-event, but that highly polished, perfectly resonant sound is wonderful." In the years since Common Tones in Simple Times, Adams has sought--and found--a world of richer harmonic possibilities and has dared ventures into a language "of greater synthesis and ambiguity. The territory... is far more dangerous, but also more fertile, more capable of expressive depth and emotional flexibility." Adams's mature music is a celebration of this stretching, a celebration of event, of wonderfully satisfying, room-filling sonority, of energy born of the force of harmonic movement.
The idea that there should be an Adams violin concerto was born in Jorja Fleezanis's mind on Tuesday evening, 26 March 1985, when she heard John Adams's Harmonielehre on the radio. The week before, Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony, where Fleezanis was then associate concertmaster, had given the first performances of that remarkable score. Harmonielehre is an exceedingly difficult piece to play, and during the rehearsals, performances, and the recording sessions that followed, Fleezanis had been too busy counting to get a coherent impression of the work. At that time, San Francisco Symphony broadcasts were heard locally on the Tuesday after the previous week's concerts. When Fleezanis had a chance to experience Harmonielehre from the outside, she found it a knockout. The moment the broadcast was over, she picked up the telephone, called Adams, and asked him to write her a violin concerto.
Much happened over the following eight years. De Waart, Adams's first champion among major conductors, left San Francisco for Minneapolis. San Francisco was still interested in commissioning the Violin Concerto, but naturally enough, when Fleezanis became concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, San Francisco's plans for an Adams commission changed. (The work Adams wrote for San Francisco instead was El Dorado.) De Waart, however, reopened the question of the Violin Concerto at his new post, and eventually a triple commission from the Minnesota Orchestra, the New York City Ballet (for choreography by Peter Martins), and the London Symphony Orchestra was arranged.
On 7 January 1993, at 8:19 P.M., Fleezanis received a fax from Adams with the words "Wir haben es angefangen" (We have begun it) and an A-minor chord about five octaves deep. (Adams had previously told her that the work would be in A minor and had promised it would be "drenchingly beautiful.") In March 1993, by way of a preview, Adams sent Fleezanis the score and tape of his Chamber Symphony, which is full of virtuoso solos for the concertmaster. She got her first look at the Concerto a month later when she visited Adams in Berkeley.
Although 7 January 1993 was the date the first notes went down on paper, Adams had had the Violin Concerto steadily in his mind since completing his second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, and El Dorado in 1991. In part, the virtuoso violin writing in the Chamber Symphony, written in 1992, can be seen as the composer's limbering-up exercise for the Concerto. In no way did Adams approach the task lightly; indeed, to begin with he found it quite intimidating. For one thing, so many composers--Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Elgar, Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, just to begin a list--had written just one violin concerto. "These," Adams remarks, "tend to be among their greatest works, so unless one is completely historically indifferent, which I can't say I am, one tends to tread lightly."
At the same time, Adams was excited by the challenge: "The violin commands incredible lyric intensity and has a fantastic capacity to deliver a white-hot message." He himself is not a violinist, and for a time he made use of an ingenious device patented by the composer Donald Martino, a T-square that corresponds to a violin's fingerboard, with lines to represent the four strings and with the positions of all the notes marked on those lines.
The Martino T-square is a great help--up to a point. It can help you determine, for example, whether a certain chord can be reached at all by a violinist with the normal quota of four fingers and a thumb. But it is one thing to be able to reach a chord and quite another to play it in the middle of a rapid and active passage. Nor does the T-square help you with the fact that some chords, though theoretically possible, simply do not "sound" and would come across as colorless or feeble. At some point the composer has to come to terms with the violin as it really is.
In this instance, Fleezanis eventually came to replace the T-square, and in so doing, she--and later, Gidon Kremer--became part of the succession of violinist collaborators that began when Ferdinand David worked with Mendelssohn on his concerto. Adams wanted to write a truly violinistic piece. Suggestions, emendations, counter-suggestions flew back and forth by phone and fax between Berkeley and Edina, Minnesota. Sometimes three alternative new versions of a passage would arrive by fax, and Fleezanis would play the various solutions back over the phone, sometimes into Adams's answering machine.
To begin with, Adams had imagined a two-movement concerto lasting a little over twenty minutes, something on the scale of the Stravinsky Concerto. The idea was to have a highly energetic first movement and then a contrasting slow movement, a chaconne, a set of variations over a repeated bass or harmonic pattern. Adams, thinking of Bach's great chaconne for solo violin and the finale of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, imagined a movement that would begin quietly but get "wilder and wilder and more ornate. It was a grand idea, but somehow I never found the right material to justify the form." Musical material always makes its desires known, makes its own laws, and controls its own destiny. Thus the chaconne became, as Adams has said, "a more enclosed piece, a kind of dreamy, filmy, almost diaphanous slow movement" in the middle of the work, which, in its final form, has the familiar shape of fast-slow-fast. Partly for that reason, the Concerto also came to be a larger work than Adams had originally foreseen: "I was trying at first to avoid a collision with destiny; nevertheless it came out big." It also turned out to be an important contribution to the repertory: just three years after the premiere, it had entered the repertory of more than a dozen violinists.
The first music we hear is a figuration in the orchestra--eight notes rising, to begin with--whose presence is constant enough to give us a sense of regularity, but whose details keep changing. The solo violin lays a wonderfully free melody across this pattern. "Composed rhapsodizing," Fleezanis calls it, and this sense of freedom, of something being invented on the spot and born out of the very spirit of the violin, the contrast between this and the firm dance floor provided by the orchestra, is characteristic of the Concerto throughout. From time to time a clarinet or some other instrument will step forward with a solo, but essentially the show is in the endlessly inventive and evolving violin part. (As well as endlessly inventive, the violin part is virtually non-stop in all three movements.) It is wave motion enormously magnified; just three or four great surges define the flow of the whole movement. There are occasional changes of speed, and near the end, Adams winds the rhythmic coil tighter by changing from four beats in a measure to just three. This switch occurs in the orchestra; the violin sets up a spicy rhythmic dissonance by staying firmly in four. This friction of three against four is one of the simplest of the cross-rhythms that enliven this Concerto.
With a brilliant passage for the flute, the orchestra makes its exit, and the violin begins a cadenza. After a brief coda at a more spacious tempo and with the solo instrument now muted, the music flows directly into the second movement. This has a title: Chaconne: "Body through which the dream flows," a phrase taken from a poem by Robert Hass. A chaconne is, as Adams puts it, "a highly identifiable musical artifact"--the Pachelbel Canon is probably the most familiar example to most people--and the recognition factor is definitely part of Adams's plan.
Chaconne and passacaglia basses in Baroque and earlier music were generally cliches that outlined basic harmonic progressions. Adams's six-measure repeated bass is likewise a cliche (he found it in the article on ground bass in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians): virtually a quotation of the bass Pachelbel used. In Pachelbel's day--and also in 1993 for Adams--the point was to show what fresh things could be done on ground trod so often before. (The literary critic Harry Levin has remarked that quotation, allusion, and collage are of the essence of twentieth-century art.)
But while in Baroque music these basses usually stayed at the same pitch and kept their rhythmic shape (as usual, Bach is the exception, at least with respect to constancy of pitch), this bass begins to travel after the third variation. At first the rhythm changes, and the pattern which took six measures to traverse when we first heard it is now expanded to nine. Later it will, for example, be compressed to four. Part of what makes this fresh and delightful is that these augmentations and diminutions, instead of being managed by simple devices such as doubling or halving, involve unusual arithmetic proportions such as 4:5. Adams owes some of these rhythmic ideas to his study of the music of one of the great American eccentrics, Conlon Nancarrow, who died in 1997.
In this movement, too, there is contrast between firmness and freedom (the body and the dream) as the familiar bass is beautifully disturbed by the violin melodies that float and soar freely across it, by changes in meter and harmony, and by the softly shimmering sound of the synthesizers in the orchestra. Something comparable happens in the harmony as well. The bass, at first, outlines the simplest imaginable major-key harmonies, but later, though it always remains recognizable, it moves into other, less familiar modes. (Computer technology now allows a composer to "translate" a melody from major into minor or into any other mode with a single keystroke.) The Chaconne is the movement that underwent the biggest changes in the course of composition. In its original form--and this probably goes back to the stage when Adams thought of it as the finale--the solo violin part was extraordinarily active, all luxuriant tendrils and coils, like something from an Ornette Coleman solo; the revisions allow much more room for expressive lyric melody.
The finale is titled "Toccare." This is an Italian verb meaning both to touch and to play a keyboard instrument--the French toucher does similar double duty--and we are more familiar with toccata, the noun derived from it. In post-Baroque music, a toccata is usually a brilliant display piece with a steady rat-tat of sixteenth-notes, and this Toccare is a finale in that spirit. Part of Adams's preparation for the writing of the Violin Concerto had involved intense listening to performances of bowed stringed instruments out- side the Western classical tradition, such as the work of the extraordinary Indian virtuoso, Dr. L. Subramaniam, and here we find inventive and daring fiddle pyrotechnics on that order. Adams's wife, the photographer Deborah O'Grady, referred to the fast movements of the Chamber Symphony as "caffeine music"--one of the most characteristic features of the Adams-O'Grady house is the aroma of fresh and strong coffee--and this heady, high-spirited finale is definitely of that ilk. And no nonsense about decaf, either.