Valor & Remembrance: The Music of World War I

Saturday, November 3, 2018 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W)

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
William White, conductor
Dana Brown, piano
Charles Robert Stephens, baritone

Program

Lili Boulanger (1893–1918)
Pour les funérailles d’un soldat

Paul Hindemith (1893–1918)
String Quartet No. 2 in F minor, Op. 10 [first movement]

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

— intermission —

Gustav Holst (1874–1934)
Ode to Death, Op. 38

Hubert Parry (1848–1918)
“There Is an Old Belief” from Songs of Farewell

Maurice Ravel
La valse

About the Concert

Marking the centenary of the armistice that ended World War I, this concert explores the experience of “the war to end all wars” through the ears of the composers who lived it. As only OSSCS can do, our program combines orchestral, choral and chamber music to create a rich tapestry of sounds and ideas.

Maurice Ravel, an ambulance driver at the front lines of the war, composed his Concerto for the Left Hand at the behest of Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist driven to create a wholly new repertoire of one-handed piano music after losing his right arm to a sniper’s bullet during the war. Paul Hindemith, amazingly, was able to form a string quartet made up of fellow soldiers during his time in the Prussian army; his second string quartet, an eerie and disconcerting work, was composed shortly before he was posted to the trenches, where he narrowly escaped a grenade attack.

“Gassed” by John Singer Sargent

We also present the work of two English composers: Gustav Holst, whose little known Ode to Death served as a memorial to friends lost during the war; and Hubert Parry, a Germanophile who could never reconcile himself to the fact that his country had gone to war with the Kaiser.

Lili Boulanger is represented by her cortège-like Pour les funérailles d’un soldat (“For the funeral of a soldier”), a startlingly prescient vision composed in the lead-up to the Great War. We close our concert with more music of Ravel, La Valse, a musical depiction of the rise and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as told through the dance in three-quarter time that had come to define it.

Join William White and Dana Brown for a pre-concert discussion at 6:30 p.m.

About the Soloists

Dana Brown

Pianist Dana Brown has been heard at the Tanglewood Festival, the Ravinia Festival, and many times on WFMT Radio as a soloist collaborator, in addition to performances with WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, Light Opera Works of Evanston, L’Opera Piccola, the Chicago Cultural Center and the Chicago Humanities Festival. As a coach, he has served on the faculty of Northwestern University, the Intermezzo Young Artists Program, the Opera and Music Festival of Lucca, Italy, and most recently the Taos Opera Institute in Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. As a solo pianist, he is a past national winner of the National Federation of Music Clubs Young Artist Competition, and has been the featured soloist in concerti of Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Gershwin across the Midwest. A graduate of the University of Michigan, where he studied with renowned accompanist Martin Katz, he is currently associate professor of Opera and Vocal Coaching at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, where he has taught and coached since 2001. At CCPA he musically directs opera, coaches graduate and undergraduates in the vocal performance programs, and teaches singer-specific classes in diction, art song literature and business practices. He is also co-artistic director of a new summer program for emerging singers, the Up North Vocal Institute, held in Boyne, Michigan, and a staff pianist for the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he has played in the lessons and masterclasses of Marilyn Horne, Renata Scotto and Renée Fleming. In 2013 he had the great honor of playing at the 80th birthday celebration of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court Building. Learn more: roosevelt.edu

Charles Robert Stephens

Baritone Charles Robert Stephens has been hailed by The New York Times as “a baritone of smooth distinction.” In his two decades in New York City, he sang several roles with the New York City Opera and on numerous occasions at Carnegie Hall. Now based in Seattle, Mr. Stephens has frequently appeared as a soloist with the Seattle Symphony and is very active with ensembles throughout the Pacific Northwest, including the orchestras of Tacoma, Spokane, Bellingham, Walla Walla and Yakima. He currently serves on the voice faculty at Pacific Lutheran University and teaches privately in Seattle. Learn more: www.charlesrobertstephens.com

Maestro’s Prelude

This evening we reflect on World War I, a conflict that ended 100 years ago but continues to shape and define our modern world. We begin with music written by two members of the young generation, Lili Boulanger and Paul Hindemith.

For Lili Boulanger, the war offered her certain professional opportunities she otherwise might have lacked. Composer Vincent d’Indy, a major gatekeeper in early-20th-century Paris, had criticized her music for being too “feminine” before the war, but was all too eager to embrace it for being truly “French” during the conflict. Hindemith, having been conscripted into the Prussian army, used his talents to keep him away from the battlefield until the war’s final weeks, allowing him to compose one of his earliest masterpieces, the second string quartet.

Maurice Ravel and Gustav Holst were aged 40 and 41, respectively, when the war broke out. Both wished desperately to serve their countries, but were initially rejected. Ravel eventually found his way into the war as an ambulance and supply-truck driver, even working as an auto mechanic (his father, a Swiss engineer, had done important work that paved the way for the invention of the gas-powered motor). Holst would compose his magnum opus, The Planets, during the war, but in 1918 finally found an opportunity to volunteer, directing a music therapy program for the English branch of the YMCA in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Holst composed his Ode to Death as a memorial to friends he had lost during the war. Many of them had been students of the eldest composer on our program, Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, one of the foremost figures in the “Second English Renaissance.” Parry enjoyed a dual career as a composer and educator, serving for decades as head of the Royal College of Music, where he taught students such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge—and Gustav Holst. Alas, few of the youngest generation of Parry’s students survived the war: their loss helped inspire his Songs of Farewell, the fourth of which we will hear this evening.

There is one more musician whose presence looms large over tonight’s concert. Although not a composer himself, Paul Wittgenstein was a Viennese pianist who lost his right arm in combat near the Ukrainian border. He later used his family’s considerable industrial fortune to commission some of the finest contemporary composers to write him concerti and chamber music to be played by the left hand alone, Ravel’s masterpiece being the outstanding example.

This concerto was far from Ravel’s only work influenced in some way by the war. In La Valse, the elegant Straussian waltz may be seen as a metaphor for the pre-war opulence that came crashing down between 1914 and 1918. The work is a potent mix of nostalgia and foreboding, an appropriate symbol for a war that juxtaposed officers on horseback with soldiers in tanks.

— William White

Program Notes

Lili Boulanger
Pour les funérailles d’un soldat

Marie-Juliette Olga (“Lili”) Boulanger was born August 21, 1893, in Paris, and died at Mézy-sur-Seine on March 15, 1918. She composed this work from August through October of 1912, completing the orchestration just before its premiere at the Paris Conservatoire on February 11, 1913. In addition to chorus and solo baritone, the score calls for pairs of woodwinds (plus English horn, bass clarinet and contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps and strings.

In a 1921 biographical essay about Lili Boulanger for La Revue Musicale, Camille Mauclair deemed Pour les funérailles d’un soldat “the noblest inspiration that has been revealed to us since the Funeral March of [Beethoven’s] Eroica Symphony.” High praise indeed for a composition that began life as a mere homework assignment to set a text from Alfred de Musset’s five-act 1831 dramatic poem La coupe et les lèvres, with Boulanger adjusting lines from their original context to meet musical requirements.

Although Boulanger composed Pour les funérailles prior to the Great War, it “remains her only composition that dealt unambiguously with the wartime suffering of soldiers,” notes Anya Holland-Barry. Her “frequent use of text-painting depicts a battle scene, the death of a soldier, and his ascent to heaven.” It was also her only choral-orchestral work she would hear performed during her lifetime. After a student reading at the Paris Conservatoire, the Société des Concerts Colonne-Lamoureux performed it on benefit concerts in November 1914 and November 1915. When the New York Philharmonic presented the first American performance in October 1918, a New York Times review praised Boulanger’s “effective use of antique ecclesiastical modes.”

The work opens with the trappings of a funeral march, with percussion dropping out at the opening line, “Qu’on voile les tambours”; the word-painting continues at ‘Qu’on
dise devant nous la prière des morts” when Boulanger quotes the opening phrase of the Dies Irae, the Gregorian plainchant for the dead.

Paul Hindemith
String Quartet No. 2 in F minor, Op. 10

Hindemith was born November 16, 1895, near Frankfurt, where he died on December 28, 1963. He composed this quartet in Alsace, France, during the first four months of 1918. The Rebner Quartet gave the first performance on June 6, 1919, in Frankfurt.

By the time he turned 20, Paul Hindemith had become second violinist in the Rebner Quartet and been hired by the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra (where he soon became concertmaster). In 1916 he won a substantial prize for his Op. 2 string quartet (unpublished during his lifetime).

Hindemith was conscripted into the German army in August 1917, undergoing basic training near his home in Frankfurt. Ordered to France in early 1918, he steered clear of combat duty by ingratiating himself to music-loving commanding officers, organizing quartet performances and benefiting from an assignment to a military band, where he played bass drum. (“I am told that never before has this instrument been handled here with such rhythmic precision.”)

In January 1918 he began composing a quartet for his dear friends Emmy and Hans Ronnefeldt on the occasion of their silver wedding anniversary. “I wish I could send you a really nice present,” he wrote to Emmy, “but out here I’m as poor as a church mouse.” A note accompanying the score read: “My dearest wish is to give you ... real pleasure with it. Not just with the dedication — which is after all just something one writes on the title page. You can rest assured that the very first note of it was written for you, and everything that is in it now is yours entirely. If you enjoy listening to it, as I hope, the work will have fulfilled its purpose.”

As the armistice approached, Hindemith served as a sentry near the front at Flanders. “You have no idea how sick I am of this life,” he wrote to Emmy Ronnefeldt. “Will these stupid idiots of men never put an end to this fiendish war?” During the last week of the conflict, he survived a grenade attack “by a miracle.”

Giselher Schubert describes the first movement of Hindemith’s F-minor quartet as “a concise sonata [form] with thematic material that is pithy and which never gets out of control or is too insistent.” A fugato episode in the development (marked “completely listlessly, numb”) “maintains the identity of the fugal subject which is derived from the main theme, not just breaking it up or fragmenting it.”

Maurice Ravel
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Joseph Maurice Ravel was born born March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France, and died in Paris on December 28, 1937. He composed this concerto during 1929 and 1930. Paul Wittgenstein gave the premiere in Vienna on January 5, 1932, accompanied by the Vienna Symphony under the direction of Robert Heger. The accompaniment requires 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E [ clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.

Had Paul Wittgenstein not been shot in the elbow during the opening months of World War I, necessitating the amputation of his right arm, history would likely remember him as the older brother of famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. But after time in a Siberian POW camp, Paul Wittgenstein returned home to Austria in 1916 and began rebuilding his career as a solo pianist.

To supplement a meager supply of existing left-hand exercises and some arrangements of his own, Wittgenstein commissioned music from several composers, among them: Josef Labor (a family friend), Paul Hindemith, Richard Strauss, Franz Schmidt, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten. But the resulting works were often at odds with the pianist’s conservative musical tastes (or their technical demands proved insurmountable), so he never ended up performing many of them.

Maurice Ravel first encountered Wittgenstein during a “stay in Vienna, which was occupied by rehearsals at the Opera of L’enfant et les sortilèges and by Mme. Ida Rubinstein’s performances in which I conducted La Valse and Boléro.” He heard the pianist perform “a concerto for the left hand alone by Richard Strauss.

“A severe limitation of this sort poses a rather arduous problem for the composer. The attempts at resolving this problem, moreover, are extremely rare, and the best known among them are the Six Etudes for the Left Hand by Saint-Saëns. Because of their brevity and sectionalization, they avoid the most formidable aspect of the problem, which is to maintain interest in a work of extended scope while utilizing such limited means.

“The fear of difficulty, however, is never as keen as the pleasure of contending with it, and, if possible, of overcoming it. That is why I acceded to Wittgenstein’s request to compose a concerto for him. I carried out my task with enthusiasm, and it was completed in a year, which represents a minimum delay for me.” Ravel took on the commission even though he was already at work on a (two-handed) piano concerto for his own use.

The left-hand concerto, wrote Ravel, “is divided into two parts which are played without pause. It begins with a slow introduction, which stands in contrast to the powerful entrance of theme one; this theme will later be off set by a second idea, marked espressivo, which is treated pianistically as though written for two hands, with an accompaniment figure weaving about the melodic line.

“The second part is a scherzo based upon two rhythmic figures. A new element suddenly appears in the middle, a sort of ostinato figure extending over several measures which are indefinitely repeated but constantly varied in their underlying harmony, and over which innumerable rhythmic patterns are introduced which become increasingly compact. This pulsation increases in intensity and frequency, and following a return of the scherzo, it leads to an expanded reprise of the initial theme of the work and finally to a long cadenza, in which the theme of the introduction and the various elements noted in the beginning of the concerto contend with one another until they are brusquely interrupted by a brutal conclusion.”

Gustav Holst
Ode to Death, Op. 38

Gustavus Theodore von Holst was born September 21, 1874, in Cheltenham, England, and died in London on May 25, 1934. Composed during 1919, this work received its first performance at the Leeds Festival on October 6, 1922, under the direction of Albert Coates. The choral accompaniment requires pairs of woodwinds (plus English horn), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp and strings.

Due to frail health, Holst could not serve in the military during the Great War, so he remained at his teaching job at St. Paul’s Girls’ School (dropping ”von” from his Germanic-sounding surname), with weekends and holidays devoted to composition. After completing A Dirge for Two Veterans (setting poetry from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) in the spring of 1914, he began sketching “Mars, the Bringer of War,” finishing it shortly before Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in August. By early 1916, six other movements had joined “Mars” to form The Planets; orchestration took another year, followed by an oratorio, The Hymn of Jesus.

Mere weeks before the end of World War I, Holst embarked to Greece and Turkey, where he worked as a YMCA volunteer organizing musical presentations at military camps. After returning to England in June 1919, the composer began work on Ode to Death, another setting of poetry drawn from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, this time “Memories of President Lincoln” (Paul Hindemith would make use of the same text in his 1946 Requiem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d). No formal dedication appears in the score, but Holst’s daughter, Imogen, later reported that he had written names of young musician friends lost in the war in his sketches (among them composer Cecil Coles).

By the time Ode to Death premiered at the Leeds Festival in October 1922, Holst had been catapulted from relative obscurity to widespread fame by the popularity of The Planets. He “was astonished to find that he was now regarded as a celebrity, and after the concert had to be escorted to the police station until mobs of admirers and autograph-hunters had dispersed.” Holst casts the opening and closing pages of his compact setting of Whitman’s text largely in 7/4 time, with a faster central episode in 5/4 (calling to mind “Mars”).

Hubert Parry
“There Is an Old Belief” from Songs of Farewell

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry was born February 27, 1848, in Bournemouth, and died October 7, 1918, in Rustington, England. He composed the first version of this motet for a 1907 memorial service. Hugh Allen conducted the premiere of the final version at the Royal College of Music on May 22, 1916.

A prolific composer as well as an influential writer and teacher, Hubert Parry served for 35 years as a professor at (and then director of) the Royal College of Music, where his students included Holst and Vaughan Williams. He composed the first version of the motet on this evening’s program for the sixth anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria, revising it extensively in 1913, and adding five more motets over the next two years to form his Songs of Farewell. The Bach Choir, in which Parry had sung bass for many years, premiered five of the six movements in May 1916, encoring “There Is an Old Belief.”

By this time Parry was suffering the effects of a heart ailment that would take his life. By February 1918, his mind (according to Herbert Howells) “was more than ever on the Songs of Farewell for he knew then that this magnificent codicil was his spiritually unorthodox farewell to a world in turmoil and distress.”

Maurice Ravel
La Valse (Poème chorégraphique pour orchestre)

Ravel composed this work from December 1919 through March 1920. Camille Chevillard led the Lamoureux Orchestra in the premiere of the orchestra version on December 12, 1920, in Paris. The score calls for triple woodwinds (including piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet and contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps and strings.

The beginnings of La valse date from 1906, when Ravel began sketching Wien, a tribute to to the music of Johann Strauss Jr. He set the work aside for some time, returning to it at the request of ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Ravel intended to create “a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which is mingled in my mind the idea of the fantastic whirl of destiny” and devised his own scenario, set in “an imperial court” around 1855:

“Swirling clouds afford glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd.
The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo.”

Diaghilev found the result undanceable. “It’s a masterpiece, but it’s not a ballet,” he said. “It’s the portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet.” This caused a permanent rift with Ravel, who premiered La Valse as an orchestral work (although Ida Rubinstein would choreograph it in 1926).

In 2009 musicologist David Lamaze proposed that the motivic figure E–B–A (omnipresent in La Valse, but found in many other Ravel compositions), or mi–si–la in French, represented Misia Sert, a close friend of Ravel’s and the woman to whom he dedicated La Valse.

“Some people have discovered in it an intention of parody, even of caricature, while others plainly have seen a tragic allusion — end of the Second Empire, state of Vienna after the war, etc.,” Ravel wrote to a friend. “Tragic, yes, it can be that like any expression — pleasure, happiness — which is pushed to extremes. You should see in it only what comes from the music: a mounting volume of sound.” Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine La Valse would have been the same had Ravel written it prior to World War I rather than during its immediate aftermath.

— Jeff Eldridge