By Tim Secomb
During his long career, the English composer William Walton wrote music in several genres, from film scores to opera. Early in his career, he gained notoriety for his modernist work Façade – An Entertainment, in which poems by Edith Sitwell are recited with an instrumental accompaniment. But in later years, some of his compositions were dismissed as being old-fashioned. His March: Crown Imperial was first performed at the coronation of King George VI in 1937. It was originally intended for the coronation of King Edward VIII, but Edward abdicated in 1936 and his brother was crowned instead. In 2011, it was performed at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. The structure of the piece, with stirring rhythmic sections flanking a grand smoothly flowing melody, is very similar to that of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches, and this piece has been jokingly referred to as “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 6.”
The music of Alexander Glazunov belongs to the late Russian Romantic period, and shows the influences of 19th-century composers including Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. Although the saxophone was invented in the early 1840s, it is not a normal part of the classical symphony orchestra. Glazunov became fascinated by the instrument’s distinctive timbre, and composed his Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra in 1934, at the urging of the Sigurd Raschèr, a famous German saxophonist. The concerto is written in a single continuous movement, with long melodic lines that make full use of the saxophone’s singing tone. Towards the end of the piece, a lively folk dance-like section provides contrasting rhythms.
Born in Argentina, the composer Astor Piazzolla spent part of his childhood in New York City, where he would listen to his father’s records of Argentine tango orchestras. He began to play the bandoneón, a type of concertina popular in South America, after his father spotted one in a New York pawn shop in 1929. On his return to Argentina, he joined a tango orchestra and studied composition. In 1954, he went to study in Paris with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, who encouraged him to pursue his career in tango music. He went on to develop a new style termed nuevo tango, incorporating elements from jazz and classical music. The haunting slow tango Tanti anni prima (Many Years Before) is from his music for the 1984 movie Enrico IV (Henry IV) by Marco Bellocchio. The title of Libertango is the merging of Libertad (liberty) and Tango, and symbolizes Piazzolla’s break from the classical tango to his nuevo tango. Its infectious rhythms capture the excitement of the tango dance form.
The music of French composer Maurice Ravel is notable for its originality, brilliance and polish. Relatively late in his career, he composed two piano concertos at about the same time. One, for left hand only, is dark and impassioned. The other, known as the Concerto in G, is light, sparkling and energetic. The first movement shows strong jazz influences, with syncopated rhythms, quirky woodwind themes, and “blue” notes. Ravel completed the concerto in 1931, and conducted the first performance in 1932 with Marguerite Long playing the solo part.
Composer Richard White writes: “Those who pass away are never far off because they live on through the prism of memory, both personal and shared. The latter is what I have sought to capture in my Fantasy on the Radetzky March, a set of fantasy-variations on Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky March. A few years back, Irving Olson conducted SASO in the Radetzky March, putting on quite a display of baton waving as well as an assortment of good-natured antics. So it was in that spirit that I chose to have fun with the Radetzky as a memorial to Irving. It is my hope that he will live again as the Fantasy’s thematic transformations and changing moods—at times joyous and exuberant, at times wistful and nostalgic—play themselves out. In a chaconne-like section near the end, the perceptive listener will also hear quotations from the opening portion of the Kol Nidre, the plaintive prayer sung in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement. The mood is soon broken, however, as the Fantasy ends on a fittingly impish note, quite in character with the man. Rest in peace, Irving.”
Gabriel Fauré’s musical talent was recognized at an early age, and he studied organ, piano, and choral music in Paris, where his teachers included Camille Saint-Saëns. He went on to become the organist and choirmaster of the Madeleine, an important church in Paris, and to teach composition at the Paris Conservatoire, where Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger were among his students. His Requiem was apparently not written in response to any specific person’s death, but “for pleasure, if I may call it that!” according to the composer. It does not closely conform to the traditional Catholic liturgy, but instead reflects the composer’s view of death “as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards the happiness of the hereafter, rather than as a painful passing away.” Visions of wrath and hellfire are notably absent, and the Pie Jesu and In Paradisum are added to emphasize the granting of eternal rest. The original 1888 version of the work called for a small orchestra consisting of harp, timpani, organ and strings without violins except for a violin solo in the Sanctus. In subsequent revisions, horns, trumpets, trombones, woodwinds and violins were added to the orchestra, and this version is played today. Despite the extra forces, the scoring retains the character of a chamber orchestra, with emphasis on the lower strings, and this contributes to the mood of calm and serenity that pervades the work.