November 2011

 

Edvard Grieg, Piano Concerto.

From earliest childhood, Grieg loved nature, loved Norway, and loved the piano. In his own words, he aspired “to paint Norwegian nature, Norwegian folk-life, Norwegian history and Norwegian folk-poetry in music.”

Though Norwegian in his aspirations, Grieg traveled to the European mainland to refine his skills as a composer. He studied at the Leipzig conservatory with Ignaz Moscheles and Carl Reinecke, learning to draw from the German Romantic tradition and developing an affinity for the music of Schumann. While in Leipzig, Grieg contracted tuberculosis and lost the use of his left lung. He pressed on with his studies, however, and completed his first and only piano concerto in 1868, while on holiday for his health in Denmark.

In 1870, Grieg came to the notice of Franz Liszt, who wrote glowingly of of the young Norwegian’s “strong, creative, inventive, and well-disciplined talent.” During a visit in the year 1870, Grieg presented Liszt with a manuscript to his concerto. Liszt read it at sight, playing both orchestral and solo parts with such virtuosity that the young composer reprimanded the old abbe for his excessive tempo. In a letter home, Grieg wrote that, toward the end of the finale, Liszt suddenly jumped up, stretched himself to his full height, strode with theatrical gait and uplifted arm through the monastery hall, and literally bellowed out the theme.  . . . [He] exclaimed, “Splendid! That’s the real thing!” . . . He went back to the piano and played the whole thing over again. . . . Finally he said in a strange, emotional way: ‘Keep on, I tell you. You have what is needed, and don’t let them frighten you.”

The concerto combines a brilliance worthy of Liszt with the landscape, lore, and light of the Norwegian homeland. With its grand, pianistic bravuras; its melancholy orchestral surges; and its delicate, pastoral themes, the piece rolls from one climax to another, always in bold, original strokes. The love of nature courses through it, and Norwegian folk echoes abound.  The cadences of Norwegian folk harmony are present even in the opening cadenza. The second movement is harmonized in the style of Grieg’s later folk song settings, and the last movement contains references to the Halling (a Norwegian folk dance) and the Hardanger fiddle (the Norwegian folk-fiddle).

Rachmaninoff called it the most perfect of all the piano concertos. It was the first concerto ever recorded, and it remains today an enduring favorite of pianists and audiences alike.

Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2 in D-flat major (“Romantic”). Born in Nebraska to Swedish immigrants, Howard Hanson devoted his life to the promotion of American music and musicians. He was only twenty-seven years old when George Eastman, philanthropist and inventor of the Kodak camera, tapped him to become the director of the newly-endowed Eastman School of Music.

By this time, Hanson had already served as Dean of Fine Arts at the College of the Pacific, won the first American Prix de Rome for Music, premiered his first symphony (the Nordic), and conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra. He would spend the next forty years, from 1924 to 1964, building a national reputation for the Eastman School. He raised the standards of its orchestra to a professional level and used his baton to commission and premiere works by such illustrious American composers as Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Alan Hovhaness, and Virgil Thomson.

The Romantic Symphony was written as a reaction to the musical formalism of the 1920s. Commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it premiered in 1930 during a period Hanson called the “heyday of the atonalists.” Hanson, whose musical style has been described variously as neo-Romantic or conservatively modern, wrote that the symphony was to represent an “escape from the rather bitter type of modern musical realism which occupies so large a place in contemporary thought,” and that he had “aimed in this symphony to create a work that was young in spirit, lyrical and romantic in termperament, and simple and direct in expression.”

Though traditional in its romanticism, the symphony departs from convention by omitting the scherzo movement. Instead, the three movements build on each other in constant, sustained expansion. Drawing from the styles of fellow Scandinavians Grieg and Sibelius, the themes are lush, atmospheric, even other-worldly. Indeed, this symphony was used—without the composer’s permission—for the soundtrack to the 1979 film Aliens, and some have speculated that it became the inspiration for John Williams’ score to the fantasy film E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. The tender second theme of the first movement, also known as the Interlochen Theme, has become famous for its use at the conclusion of broadcasts and concerts at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.

© 2011 Heidi Rodeback