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Sonic Boom Program Notes

Sonic Boom Program Notes

Program Notes for Sonic Boom
©2021 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin

Nir’s Notes

The organ is called the King of Instruments because of its power and size. Talented showman Cameron Carpenter joins the Santa Barbara Symphony for a program that covers music over a 200-year period and shows why the king still reigns. Bach’s “St. Anne” Prelude is a compendium of popular styles of his day, while the paired fugue is a brilliant exercise in counterpoint. Poulenc’s Organ Concerto throws us 200 years ahead and displays the composer’s sardonic and witty style—sometimes severe, sometimes almost comic. Our concert ends with the “Sonic Boom” of Saint-Saëns’ majestic “Organ Symphony.”

Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 543 (St. Anne)
– Johann Sebastian Bach

Born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Germany

This work dates before 1739 and was likely composed in Leipzig, Germany. It is scored for solo organ.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical output covers nearly every genre. A glance at the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV), a catalog of Bach’s works, shows the composer’s music categorized by genre, as opposed to the Mozart Köchel catalog that organizes them chronologically. The BWV listings give an accurate impression of the number of works in each genre. Among the 1120 pieces listed, there are 524 vocal works (cantatas and large choral pieces among them), 222 keyboard pieces, and thirty orchestra works. Perhaps most notable, since it was Bach’s instrument, are the 246 organ works.

Among Bach’s music for organ are seven concertos, dozens of chorale preludes, and six trio sonatas. Bach also composed over fifty paired fugues, some with toccatas or passacaglias, but most with preludes. Of course, the mention of preludes and fugues conjures the image of the twenty-four preludes and fugues appearing in each of the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier for harpsichord, but the organ music is much different. As older organs in Bach’s day were not well-tempered, the concept of composing in all major and minor keys did not carry over. Tuning an organ to a new system is a major mechanical operation, as opposed to the more manageable harpsichord. Because of this, Bach’s fugue pairings for organ are confined to the most commonly used major and minor keys—C, D, E-flat, F, G A, and B-flat major; and C, D, E, F, G, A, and B minor.

All of these works attest to Bach’s skill on the organ. A period obituary describes his abilities with great eloquence:

“For as long as there is nought to confute us other than the mere possibility of the existence of better organists and keyboard players, we cannot be reproached if we are bold enough to persist in the claim that our Bach was the most prodigious organist and keyboard player that there has ever been. It may be that this or that famous man has accomplished much in polyphony on these instruments but was he for that reason as expert – with hands and feet together – as Bach was? Whosoever had the pleasure of hearing him and others, being not otherwise disposed by prejudice, will agree that this doubt is not unfounded. And whosoever looks at Bach’s pieces for the organ and the keyboard, which he himself, as is universally known, performed with the greatest perfection, will likewise have nothing to say in contradiction of the above statement.”

Bach’s St. Anne Prelude and Fugue, BWV 552, was published in the Clavierübung Part III in 1739. The opening prelude is a combination of the more severe French style juxtaposed with Italian concertante elements. In other words, it is a mixture of popular styles of the period and demonstrates Bach’s knowledge of composers far away from his German home. After the prelude, the published volume has a series of chorale preludes and liturgical pieces. At the end of the volume, there is a tripartite fugue in the same key as the prelude. Although these two pieces were not regularly performed together until the 1820s, they are almost always joined in modern performances.

The fugue is a masterwork of numerology and symbolism. There are three sections and three closely related subjects, all in a key signature of three flats, obviously representing the Trinity. Of course, this is in addition to a similar structure in the prelude. The opening fugue subject bears a resemblance to William Croft’s hymn tune named St. Anne, so the work has collected that name.

For the organist this adds challenges but provides for a magnificent showpiece for performers like the soloist on this program.

Organ Concerto
– Francis Poulenc

Born January 7, 1899, in Paris, France
Died January 30, 1963, in Paris, France

This work was premiered privately on December 16, 1938, in the salon of Princess de Polignac in Paris with organist Maurice Durufle and conductor Nadia Boulanger. The first public performance was in June of 1939 at the Salle Gaveau in Paris with Durufle as soloist and Roger Désormière conducting. It is scored for organ solo, timpani, and strings.

Francis Poulenc’s upbringing was one of privilege. His father was the head of the multinational pharmaceutical company Rhône-Poulenc and the resultant wealth allowed the family’s every want and need to be met without reservation. Francis adored childhood piano lessons and decided early on that his career would be in the musical field. However, his father insisted on a highly regimented classical education at an elite Parisian academy. Once these studies were completed, Francis would be permitted to enter the Conservatoire. However, the deaths of both his parents in the young man’s teenage years thwarted his plans. Instead of entering at the famed Conservatoire, Poulenc studied privately with the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes. In the discipline of composition, the young composer was largely self-taught.

Through Viñes, Poulenc met several prominent figures in the Parisian arts scene – the poets Apollinaire, Gide, and Claudel and, perhaps most notably, the iconoclastic composer Erik Satie, who influenced many French composers between the 1880s and his death in 1925. In the 1920s Paris was an artistic melting pot with the debauchery of the cabarets existing alongside the most respected poets, painters, and composers of the day. Poulenc absorbed every available influence as the sardonic wittiness of his music attests. Igor Stravinsky took notice of the teenage composer and convinced the publishing firm of J. W. Chester in London to issue several of his works.

Shortly thereafter, Poulenc was accepted into the group of composers known as Les Six (‘The Six’) – also including Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, Louis Durey, and Arthur Honegger – who gathered as friends at a bar called La Gaya to drink and discuss music. This group composed the most significant French works of the period. Over the next four decades, Poulenc created music in nearly every genre, including three operas, a handful of ballets, several orchestra works, chamber music, and numerous pieces for piano and chorus. He is recognized as the most important composer of French art songs in the twentieth century.

Poulenc’s Organ Concerto dates from 1938 and was commissioned by and dedicated to one of the most colorful of characters in the multi-hued spectrum of Parisian eccentrics of the 1920s and ‘30s. The Princess de Polignac was born in Yonkers, New York, as Winnaretta Singer and was the heir to the sewing machine fortune. When the Civil War broke out in the U.S., the family relocated to France. In 1893 she married Prince Edmond de Polignac, thirty years her senior, in a marriage of convenience (both parties were homosexual) and remained with him until his death in 1901. Having inherited her father’s fortune in 1875 and now the Polignac riches, “Princess Winnie” occupied her time by supporting the most promising writers, dancers, actors, artists, musicians, and composers in Paris. Poulenc’s association with the Princess began in 1923 when he played one of the four piano parts in the private premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces in her home.

The Princess originally offered the commission for an organ concerto to composer Jean Françaix, who turned down the offer and passed it to Poulenc. She intended to play the piece, but Poulenc refused to simplify his ideas. About the same time he began the work, his friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud, an up-and-coming composer and music critic, was decapitated in an auto accident in Hungary. In an attempt to find consolation, Poulenc made a pilgrimage to see the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, a wooden statue in southwestern France. The combination of the composer’s grief and religious reawakening informs the Organ Concerto with a unique aesthetic that is unlike any other composition.

Poulenc’s Organ Concerto is in seven distinct sections all organized into a single movement. One can easily hear a clear progression from feelings of anger and confusion to acceptance within the work, but Poulenc never divulged his intended meaning.

The work opens with a shocking and almost sinister passage for the soloist. Pizzicato low strings join the brooding melody, which gives way to a lyrical theme in the strings. In typical Poulenc style, the second section is filled with dissonant harmony and angular melodies that are propelled by a driving rhythmic pulse. An andante section interrupts with dotted rhythms and then proceeds through a series of two climaxes to become quite menacing at the end. Music from the second section returns, but soon grows into something quite different with dazzling organ writing and daring harmonies. A lovely slow section follows, but the tenderness is soon defeated by dissonant organ chords that lead to an allegro that seems inspired by Parisian cabaret music. The finale returns to the music of the opening with its sinister organ chords. However, the mood soon turns to one of resignation and peace as a poignant viola solo enters. Pizzicato strings enter and the movement feels as if it is winding down. A final organ gesture provides a very meaningful conclusion.

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 (“Organ”)
– Camille Saint-Saëns

Born October 9, 1835, in Paris, France
Died December 16, 1921, in Algiers, Algeria

The symphony received its premiere on May 19, 1886, by London Philharmonic Society conducted by composer. It is scored for piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano (four-hands), organ, and strings.

The eighty-six years of Camille Saint-Saëns’ life comprise one of the longest of any composer. Born in 1835, only eight years after Beethoven’s death, he lived until 1921, three years after Leonard Bernstein’s birth. However, it was not his longevity that makes him memorable, but the enormously creative works he composed during the eighty-two productive years of his musical life – beginning at age four. Also a pianist, Saint-Saëns gave many concerts and was praised by critics for his elegance and mastery.

Saint-Saëns described music as “a formal combination of pleasing sounds, purity of style and perfection of form…. elegant lines, tasteful coloration, and beautiful succession of harmonies.” This was not idle pontification, but a perfect description of Saint-Saëns’ musical style. His works fit into a strict formal structure, sometimes innovative but never avant-garde. His approach is direct, but never harsh. A distinct French flavor is ever-present with a melodic and harmonic frivolity that is quite appealing.

The most popular orchestral work by Saint-Saëns is his 1886 Symphony No. 3, universally known as the “Organ” Symphony because of the use of that instrument both as soloist and as a vital part of the orchestral texture. In his own words, “The composer thinks that the time has come for the symphony to benefit by the progress of modern instrumentation.” Saint-Saëns was a master of orchestral subtlety and it certainly did not hurt that the work was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society – one of the greatest ensembles at the time. He dedicated it to the memory of another composer whose later music is filled with delicate shading – Franz Liszt, who had died earlier that year.

Saint-Saëns chose a unique framework for this symphony, which he described very clearly. “This symphony is divided into two parts. Nevertheless, it embraces in principle the four traditional movements, but the first is altered in its development to serve as the introduction to the poco adagio, and the scherzo is connected by the same process to the finale.” In other words, there are two sets of paired bipartite movements. The fascinating structure of slow introduction, rapid allegro and expressive adagio corresponds exactly to the usual first two movements of traditional symphonic form. Saint-Saëns compressed the form into a single movement. Likewise, the scherzo and triumphant finale are cast in one movement, but function as two. The initial theme, developed in the adagio, is further manipulated in the last two sections. Interestingly, this use of “thematic transformation” codified by revolutionary pianist/composer Franz Liszt is an example of a progressive technique used by a conservative composer.

This powerful work opens with a slow introduction that soon gives way to a brisk sixteenth-note string motif from which most of the themes in this symphony are derived. It has often been mentioned that this theme bears a strong resemblance to the Dies irae chant from the Requiem Mass. Even though the tempo is fast, there is a sense of sobriety to this music. The first entry of the organ, almost ten minutes into the work, opens the adagio second part of the first movement. It is interesting that Saint-Saëns, an organist, chose to introduce his instrument as a gentle murmur in support of a string section as they play what he described as an “extremely peaceful, contemplative theme.” After a vigorous development, a lovely coda brings the movement to a peaceful close.

An energetic scherzo opens the second movement with a rhythmic theme in the lower reaches of the string section. Woodwinds bring back a transformed version of the sixteenth-note theme from the fast section of the first movement. An even quicker trio follows with sparkling scales played by the pianists. When the second half of this movement, the finale, begins, it is with the unmistakable appearance of a huge fortissimo C major chord played by the full organ. One of the most scintillating textures in all of music occurs in this movement when the strings play a new theme (derived from the first movement’s sixteenth-note theme) as the pianists perform arpeggios high above. A fugue soon follows, giving way to one of the most spectacular of codas, featuring a breathtaking race to the finish line by the full orchestra and the organ.

©2021 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin

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