MW6 – Pictures at an Exhibition
Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 (Orch. Leopold Stokowski)
The history of the toccata (from the Italian "to touch") dates back to the sixteenth century. Developed by Girolamo Frescobaldi during the early seventeenth century into an extensive, freely composed keyboard piece with several contrasting sections, the toccata underwent many alterations in form and style throughout the Baroque period. Among its principal exponents in northern Europe were Johann Pachelbel and Dietrich Buxtehude, both of whom had a significant influence on the young Bach. Bach, in fact, is said to have walked over 100 miles from Eisenach to Lübeck just to hear Buxtehude play the organ.
As a genre, the toccata is similar to the keyboard fantasia, having no set rules as to form or structure, and serving primarily as a display of keyboard virtuosity. Until the late Baroque, there was no clear distinction between toccata (or prelude) and fugue, as one finds in Bach's works; toccatas often contained fugal sections. A common feature of the toccata was rapid staccato repetition of a single note.
The original manuscript of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor has not survived, and since the 1980s there have been numerous claims that the work was not by Bach at all. But one of the foremost contemporary Bach scholars, Christoph Wolff maintains that it is one of Bach's early works and reveals the influence of his elder colleagues. It shows the exuberance of youth in its bold, virtuosic statements. Apparently the composer considered it somewhat undisciplined.
The work lends itself readily to orchestration, especially by such extrovert musicians as the conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), who orchestrated it for his Philadelphia Orchestra in 1926 and recorded it with them a year later. His controversial 1927 orchestration became a hit after it was used in 1940 as the opening section of Walt Disney's animated introduction to classical music, Fantasia.
The Toccata opens slowly, almost without meter and serving as a warm-up to explore the key and the keyboard (in the organ version). With the increase in tempo, Stokowski pits the harp against the entire orchestra. The fugue is based on the first few notes of the opening of the Toccata.
A classic fugue in Bach's time begins with the contrapuntal voices, or lines, entering sequentially. After all voices have entered and the subject (theme) has been clearly established, the fugue continues by alternating passages in which the subject is varied – for example, by appearing in retrograde (backwards), in inversion (upsidedown), in augmentation (at fractions of the original tempo) or in diminution (in multiples of the original tempo), or any combination thereof. As a relief from these dense, almost mathematically constructed sections are episodes of free counterpoint that may use motives from the theme or compeltely new music. In this piece, the free episodes are more extensive than in Bach's later, more academic, writing and the handling of the fugue subject less so.
Stokowski's orchestration uses the sections of the orchestra the way an organist would use different registers and stops – to create musical color. A short example here will illustrate the difference between the original version and the orchestration, but because no two organs are exactly alike and the organist has a virtually unlimited choice in the combination of stops to use, there is no definitive version.
Violin Concerto Tropoi
German composer Torsten Rasch grew up and studied piano and composition in Dresden at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he moved to Japan, where he became a well-known composer of over 40 film and TV scores. But commissions from Germany and Britain gradually pulled him back to Berlin to compose vocal, symphonic and chamber music, and even try his hand at opera.
The Violin Concerto, Tropoi – singular tropos, a word of multiple meanings, here referring to turn or change – is Rasch’s first concerto. It was inspired by Helmut Krausser‘s 1993 novel Melodien oder Nachträge zum quecksilbernen Zeitalter (Melodies or Postscript to a Mercurial Age), in which myth, magic, music, and madness interact in a dark, and increasingly disturbing, narrative. It was commissioned jointly by the Dresden Philharmonic, the Spokane Symphony and the South Carolina Philharmonic, and premiered in Dresden in 2016. According to reviews of the premiere, the music is inspired by the Classical violin literature, as well as by film music. Referring to his Concerto in relation to the history of the great violin concertos, Rasch said: “My aim is not re-invent the building and to make the ceiling into the floor. I want however to remold the house with my language, my ideas.”
The publisher writes about the Concerto: “From the first movement, Descent, which begins with the violin suspended high in the stratosphere, to the second movement, where much of the constantly renewing material derives from the Veni Creator Spiritus chant, Rasch’s concerto traces an uncompromising and utterly personal trajectory, which only becomes more intense as it progresses. The finale, Ascent, reaches its culmination with a quotation of the Easter Hymn Salve festa dies but concludes, not with a feeling of release, but rather one of the concerto traveling full circle – back to the allusive high writing with which it began.”
Modest Petrovich Musorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition (Orch. Maurice Ravel)
Modest Musorgsky, one of the wild cards of nineteenth century Russian music, left very few completed scores by the time of his early death from alcoholism. Of his meager output, the operas Boris Godunov and the uncompleted Khovanshchina, some songs, the short orchestral score St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, have stood the test of time. Although Boris and St. John’s Night are most often heard in Nikolay Rimsky Korsakov’s “corrected” version, they now are considered among the highlights of Russian music. Musorgsky was a member of the “Mighty Five” – together with Mily Balakirev, Aleksander Borodin, Cesar Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov – whose goal was to further the pan-Slavic movement and Russian nationalist music.
In July 1873 Musorgsky’s close friend, the young architect and painter Victor Gartman (The Germans mistakenly called him Hartmann, an error that has been perpetuated in much of the old literature – there is no H in the Russian alphabet), died suddenly. The following year a posthumous showing of his drawings, paintings and designs was presented in St. Petersburg. Much of Gartman’s work was fantastic and bizarre in nature, elements which held a special fascination for Musorgsky, who set out to create a musical memorial to his friend in the form of a suite of piano pieces. He depicted his impressions of ten of the pictures, portraying himself as the observer in the Promenade that introduces the work and serves as connector between the tableaux.
A striking aspect of the suite is the nearly complete absence of any subjective emotion in a work directly inspired by a great personal loss. Musorgsky gives us his personal impressions of Gartman’s art, but rarely of his feelings about Gartman’s death. Even in the Promenade, strolling from picture to picture, he portrays a cool, objective viewer rather than a grieving friend.
There is no evidence that Musorgsky ever planned to orchestrate the suite, although many of the pieces stretch the piano to its limits, crying out for orchestration. The score was not published until five years after the composer’s death, at which point other composers started its long history of orchestrated versions. The first was Mikhail Tushmalov in 1890, followed by Sir Henry Wood, Lucien Cailliet, Leopold Stokowski, Vladimir Ashkenazy and many others. But the most popular and by far the most successful “recomposition” is the one by Maurice Ravel, done in 1922 under a commission from the conductor Sergey Koussevitzky.
One of the most striking features of Musorgsky’s piano version, further enhanced by Ravel’s orchestration, is the vivid tone painting that enables the listener to actually visualize the painting. And it’s a good thing too since the originals of some of Gartman’s works upon which the suite is based are either lost or inaccessible.
In addition to the Promenade the pictures that inspired the ten tableaux of the suite are:
1. Gnomus: A sketch of a little gnome on crooked legs, said to be a design for a nutcracker.
2. Il vecchio castello: A medieval castle before which a troubadour sings a love song. The mournful sound of the alto saxophone was Ravel’s stroke of genius.
3. Tuileries: Children quarreling and nurses shouting in an avenue in the Tuileries garden in Paris.
4. Bydlo: A Polish oxcart with enormous wheels, plowing through the mud, approaches, passes by and gradually disappears again.
5. Ballet of the chickens in their shells: Aa design for a scene from the ballet Trilby.
6. Two Polish Jews: One rich, the other poor – No picture by Gartman corresponding to this tableau has ever been found. The subtitle “Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle” is a late addition, not by Mussorgsky. Ravel uses the basses and a solo muted trumpet to represent the two characters.
7. The market place of Limoges: French women quarreling violently in the market.
8. Catacombs: The interior of the catacombs in Paris illuminated by lantern light with the figure of Gartman himself in the shadows.
8a.“Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” (“With the dead in a dead language”): The promenade, in the minor mode and like plainchant, constitutes the second part of the Catacombs.
9. The Hut on Fowl’s Legs: Baba-Yaga, the hideous old crone of Russian folklore, who lives in a hut supported on fowl legs and flies around in an iron mortar was Gartman’s design for the face of a clock.
10. The Great Gate of Kiev: Gartman’s design for a memorial gate in Kiev in honor of Tsar Alexander II. The design is in the massive Old Russian style, topped by a cupola in the shape of the helmet of the old Slavic warriors. While Musorgsky was only able to approximate the sound of the devout congregations singing old Church Slovanic chant, Ravel's sound is much closer. But pianists simply run out of fingers imitating the deep sustained sound of the Russian churchbells, while orchestra has infinitely more flexibility in its ability to sustain notes and create the most subtle textures and colors. in other passages he used not only the obvious bells, but also tuba and violins to capture the combined sound of large and small bells.