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ClassicsOnline Home » BERNSTEIN, L.: Arias and Barcarolles / BARBER, S.: The School for Scandal / DIAMOND, D.: Elegy in Memory of Maurice Ravel (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
This triumvirate of composers represents an essentially lyrical impulse in American music. Leonard Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles was completed in 1988 but had existed in some form since 1955. The cycle of songs about love and marriage was written for voice and piano (four-hands) but orchestrated, under Bernstein’s supervision, by Bright Sheng, and premièred by Gerard Schwarz. Eclectic, exciting, jazzy, and Mahlerian, it reflects Bernstein in all his multi-faceted glory. Barber’s concert overture is a vibrant work, fizzing with energy, whilst Diamond’s Elegy offers a poignant, noble and at times violent lament for Ravel.
By James H. North
By Mary Kunz Goldman
The Buffalo News
Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990): Arias and Barcarolles
Samuel Barber (1910–1981): Overture to ‘The School for Scandal’
David Diamond (1915–2005): Elegy in Memory of Maurice Ravel
Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber and David Diamond represent the mainstream of American concert music during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Somewhat more adventurous than such latter-day Romantics as Howard Hanson, more loyal to received tradition than were Ives, Cowell, John Cage and other experimentally inclined composers, Bernstein, Barber and Diamond adopted certain modernist innovations in harmony, rhythm and instrumentation, but the music of each of these composers remained rooted in clearly defined tonal centers and a fundamentally lyrical impulse. Leonard Bernstein was born in Boston in 1918. He became one of the most versatile musicians of his day and a true polymath in a larger sense. A renowned conductor, he led many of the world’s major orchestras. As a pianist, he could perform classical works and jazz. With his famous Young People’s Concerts, he established himself as an engaging television personality, but he was equally capable of delivering the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University, his alma mater. Bernstein’s activities as a composer also were diverse; encompassing operas, symphonies and choral works, as well as film scores and Broadway musicals.
Completed in 1988, Arias and Barcarolles was Bernstein’s last major work before his death in 1990. But although the piece took its definitive shape during the final years of the composer’s life, its genesis spans a much longer time. One of its constituent movements dates from 1955, and others may have been conceived well before assuming their final forms, since Bernstein often jotted down verses or melodies that might grow into songs. Moreover, the work’s title originated in 1960, when Bernstein performed at the White House for an audience that included President Dwight Eisenhower. “I liked that last piece you played,” Ike reportedly told the composer at the time; “it had a tune. I like music with a tune, not all of them arias and barcarolles and things.” That expression of the 34th President’s musical dislikes evidently stayed with Bernstein until he could employ it with suitable irony. Bernstein scored this cycle of songs about love and marriage for two voices and piano (four-hands). The composer hoped to orchestrate the accompaniment but was prevented from doing so by his conducting schedule and declining health. That task was therefore undertaken by the Chinese émigré composer Bright Sheng, under Bernstein’s supervision. The resulting version of Arias and Barcarolles, with the accompaniment transcribed for strings and percussion, was first performed in 1989, under the direction of Gerard Schwarz.
The songs of Arias and Barcarolles reflect the eclectic style of Bernstein’s composing. The angular rhythms that begin the Prelude recall the famous opening sequence of West Side Story. By contrast, the second movement’s Love Duet presents the composer’s lyrical vein. Little Smary, The Love of My Life and At My Wedding attest to Bernstein’s familiarity with the work of Bartók, Shostakovich and other twentieth-century composers. Greeting, written in 1955 upon the birth of the composer’s son Alexander, partakes of the open, diatonic style cultivated as a distinctly American idiom by Aaron Copland. Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight begins with a zany march, then progresses through a jazzy section (complete with scat-singing of some off-color lyrics) to a duet recalling the best music of another Broadway master, Stephen Sondheim. The concluding Nachspiel, with its wordless vocalise, brings to mind the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a work with which Bernstein, as a conductor, was closely associated.
Samuel Barber was born in 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. He began writing music at age seven and worked as a church organist from the time he was twelve. Four years later he became a member of the charter class of the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia. At Curtis, Barber composed his first polished pieces and began to gain the attention of some of the leading musicians of his day. During the years that followed, he produced a respected body of music, earning numerous honors, including, on two occasions, the Pulitzer Prize. Works such as his Violin Concerto and the cantata Knoxville: Summer of 1915 remain frequently performed, while his poignant Adagio for Strings has achieved a degree of general familiarity rare among twentieth-century compositions. He died in 1981.
Although Barber cautiously ventured some modern compositional procedures, his most characteristic music evinces an allegiance to fairly traditional harmonies, an unabashed lyricism, strong emotional expression and an approach to compositional form, orchestration and musical rhetoric rooted in nineteenth-century practice. All this implies an essentially Romantic outlook that was integral to the composer’s temperament. Barber found the inspiration for three of his most successful early pieces in the work of English writers, Matthew Arnold, Percy Shelley and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose comedy of manners The School for Scandal prompted Barber’s concert overture of the same title. Written in the summer of 1931, this work proved the greatest of Barber’s youthful successes.
Barber did not write the overture for a particular performance of The School for Scandal, nor does the music contain any programmatic references to the play; that is, there are no correspondences between the overture’s themes or episodes and the characters or plot of Sheridan’s comedy. Rather, the music mirrors the play’s witty and fast-paced tone within the traditional form of a concert overture.
Following a brief but dramatic prologue, violins present a wide-stepping melody that serves as the overture’s principal theme. A skillful transition passage brings us to the second subject, a broad anthem introduced by the oboe. The string choir takes up this melody, but the music soon returns to the more animated character established by the initial theme. Except for the recapitulation of the oboe’s stirring melody (which returns in the voice of the English horn), this idea dominates the remainder of the overture. An accelerating coda passage, a bow to the comic overtures of Rossini, concludes the work.
David Diamond was born in 1915, in Rochester, New York. He studied violin and composition during his youth and remembered having written about a hundred pieces of music by the time he graduated from high school. Following a year at the Eastman School and studies with Roger Sessions in New York, Diamond went to Paris, where he worked with Nadia Boulanger. Returning to the United States, he secured commissions and performances of his works by major American orchestras under the direction of such conductors as Koussevitzky, Mitropoulos and the young Leonard Bernstein. In 1973 Diamond joined the faculty of The Juilliard School, where he taught composition for the next quarter-century. He died in 2005.
Diamond cast many of his works in venerable forms—symphonies, string quartets and concertos figure prominently in his output—and he steadfastly resisted the trappings and processes of the post-World War II avant-garde. The composer stated his musical outlook succinctly, declaring: “I am part of the classical tradition.” In addition to studying with Boulanger, Diamond had valuable contact in Paris with such composers as Stravinsky, Milhaud and Ravel. The latter’s fastidious musical craftsmanship became a model for Diamond. Shortly after Ravel’s death in 1937 Diamond wrote an Elegy for the French composer, scoring it for brass, percussion and harps. (The composer subsequently created an alternate version for strings and percussion.)
The work’s main theme, an arching subject of great nobility, appears at the outset of the single-movement composition. It suggests dignified mourning, but that restrained demeanor vanishes with the arrival of an agitated second theme, a brief but violent outpouring of grief. This paroxysm quickly gives way to a resigned calm, but we now know not to take any hint of serenity for granted. And, indeed, the distressed second theme makes several reappearances (we also hear the initial idea) before the music finally reaches a quiet conclusion.
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