Time Warp Program Notes

These notes appeared in the printed program for distribution on October 13, 2019 at the Sandler Center for Performing Arts for the performance of “Time Warp” conducted by Daniel W. Boothe. All program notes for this performance were written by Lee Dise.

William F. Buckley, Jr., in a tribute dedicated to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) on the occasion of his 300th birthday, relayed a story told about biologist Lewis Thomas.  Thomas was once asked, what message should we consider sending to alien civilizations in outer space? According to Buckley: “Thomas replied, ‘I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.’ Then he paused, and said, ‘But that would be boasting.'”

Bach was simply the greatest composer of the Baroque era, if not the greatest composer of all time.  This season, our orchestra will spend a little quality time boasting of Bach to our audiences. We will perform a Bach composition (arranged for full orchestra) in every subscription concert.  Why does Bach still command such respect after all these years? The musicologists will tell you that Bach, more than any other Baroque composer, was the musical summation of his era — and that, at times, it seems almost self-conscious.  It’s like Bach went out of his way to write the very greatest piece in every single musical genre of the Baroque. But nobody’s forcing us to look at Bach like a musicologist; all we have to do is enjoy listening to his music, from his two-part inventions to the Brandenburg concerti, from fugues to the B minor Mass, from his sinfonias to the Passions. As for Bach himself, he dismissed any talk of his own genius, protesting, “I was obliged to be industrious.  Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” A poem by Robert Charles Howard offered this tribute to Bach:

“…But modesty forbade him boast 

the importance of his station – 

affixing to his noblest works, 

a trio of humblest words, 

“Soli Deo Gloria.”

TIME WARP PROGRAM COMMENTARY

In 1723, Bach became the music director of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, a position he held for the last twenty-seven years of his life.  Leipzig was a rich city, a center of commerce and the arts. The life of a church musician was filled with work, work, work — training his singers, writing music for the worship service, rehearsing the orchestra, and performing as conductor and organist.  All work and no play makes Johann a dull boy; but he was married twice and fathered twenty children, so it would appear he made time for a hobby. At some point — not known exactly when, but probably during his time in Leipzig — Bach composed his Toccata and Fugue in D minor, perhaps his most famous work and still a staple of the organist’s repertoire.  A toccata is a short, informal movement, which the performer uses as a virtuosic showcase.  On the other hand, a fugue is very structured. We can think of it as an extended round.  It begins with a brief melody, called the subject, and this gets restated throughout, in various voicings and in a series of rhythmically staggered entrances — think “Frère Jacques” on steroids.  All this leads to densely-textured sonorities.  The trick is to bring in all the voices smoothly and to keep the resulting harmonies coherent.  It takes a master to manage all that. This piece was lost for a century, but rediscovered during Felix Mendelssohn’s Bach revival.  It has even been used in film, particularly in the depiction of mad genius — e.g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and The Phantom of the Opera (1962 version).  For Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney hired the renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski to score it for orchestra, and to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra for the film’s soundtrack.  The Stokowski version is what we are performing today. Listen for the striking and tension-building cadences.

One of the constants in music history is the relentless variability of styles.  Even if there were such a thing as stylistic perfection, which is impossible, composers and listeners would still be attracted by newer and more exciting techniques.  In the few short years between Bach and Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809), the Baroque style had already become old hat.  Haydn composed in what we call the Classical style, which held onto the harmonic innovations of the Baroque, but eschewed its dense textures and ornateness.  Classical composers (such as Haydn, Mozart, and the young Beethoven) preferred to write in a cleaner, clearer style, emphasizing the beauty of the music’s lyrical and formal content.  The Classical style gave birth to the symphony, and the DNA testing has revealed Haydn as the father.  In terms of the evolution of symphonic style, one could treat Haydn’s 104 symphonies as an archaeological dig, providing us with a front-row seat to the development of the symphonic organism.  And not only did the symphony evolve under Haydn, but so did the symphony orchestra — his later symphonies demand an orchestra that’s twice the size of those required in his earlier works, and more diverse in its instrumentation.  Haydn had a blessed career. In 1761, after some years of struggle, he obtained support from the very wealthy Esterházy princes of Hungary. The history books often call this sort of support a form of patronage, but this support had strings attached.  The relationship between the Esterházys and Haydn was more like employer and employee. Like Bach, Haydn’s daily life was filled with work. To earn his keep, he had to compose new music constantly, run his orchestra, and even produce operas. But his bosses did appreciate his work, and granted Haydn permission to publish his compositions to supplement his income; this eventually made Haydn a rich man.  Today, we are performing Haydn’s Symphony No. 19 in D major, which, in terms of symphonic taxonomy, is one of his earlier subspecies.  What you’ll hear in Haydn’s music, as opposed to Bach’s, is a lighter-than-air texture that practically springs from the manuscript into your ears — a nice counterbalance to the muscular thickness of a Bach fugue.  Bach sounds like he’s talking to God; Haydn sounds like he’s making witty banter with his fellow courtiers and bringing smiles to their faces.

Fast-forward now, more than two hundred years.  Polo Piatti (1954-) is an Argentine composer.  He was a child prodigy on piano, and left his native country to study in Paris, Berlin, and finally London, where he now makes his home.  His music has touched listeners as far away as Kyoto, and has served the Queen of England during her Diamond Jubilee.  Aside from his world travels, Piatti has also worked at the local level in England as the artistic director of the Hastings Sinfonia.  Today, Maestro Boothe and Symphonicity are delighted to premiere Piatti’s Bohemian Piano Concerto, with Thomas Pandolfi once again with us here in Virginia Beach to amaze us with his virtuosity.  In Piatti’s own words: “The name refers to the spirit of what we call a ‘bohemian person,’ someone that leads a bohemian life, the tumultuous existence of an artist, with moments of excess, ecstasy and passion as well as warmth, introspection, love for the world and intense joie de vivre.”  Piatti’s compositional style has been described as neo-Romantic, which implies an emotional but restrained sentiment.  This is not an angst-filled Berlioz crying out with an augmented brass section and booming tympani chords; rather, it is a measured and wistful fondness for follies of the heart.

This completes the time warp.  At the end of the day, a diet of pure reason is thin gruel.  Baroque faith sustains us, Classical intellect enlightens us, but Romantic zeal brings the sense of purpose that life would otherwise lack.  We need all three.