November 2, 2017
Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)
Jessie Montgomery is a New York native passionate about sharing her thoughts through music. According to Montgomery, “Music is my connection to the world. It guides me to understand my place in relation to others and challenges me to make clear the things I do not understand. I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.” Prestigious organizations such as The American Composers Orchestra, The Sphinx Organization, The Joyce Foundation and The Sorel Organization have recognized her as an important emerging composer. In addition to her work as a composer, Montgomery is an active violinist and music educator. Currently she performs with the critically acclaimed Catalyst Quartet.
“Banner” (2014) was commissioned by The Joyce Foundation and The Sphinx Organization to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, which was officially declared the American national anthem in 1814. According to the Anthony Tommasini, “Many composers would have been wary of a commission to write a tribute to the 200th anniversary of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ . . . Ms. Montgomery readily accepted the challenge, writing an urgent, inventive piece titled ‘Banner’ . . . She daringly transforms the anthem, folding it into a teaming score . . . to create a musical melting pot” (New York Times). Montgomery adds, “I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a die-hard patriot. We should celebrate, but also take note of struggles that have occurred in order for us all to be in this land of the free.”
“Banner” is scored for solo string quartet and string orchestra. Throughout the work the solo string quartet, representing the individual voice, is juxtaposed against the larger “community” of the orchestra. Montgomery weaves snippets of the “Star Spangled Banner” with socialist anthems and civil rights songs. In doing so she layers echoes of America’s musical heritage with her unique contemporary perspective as a woman living in culturally diverse New York City. The result, a brilliant and strikingly profound statement on what it is to be a twenty-first century American.
The Unanswered Question
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Born in Danbury, Connecticut on October 20, 1874, Charles Ives is regarded as the leading American composer of art music of the early twentieth-century. He was born into one of Danbury’s leading families; his father made a career out of teaching, performing and conducting music. Ives was exposed to a wide range of music early on in his life and studied both piano and organ. He became quite an accomplished performer of American vernacular music, Protestant church music, and European classical music. Although he studied piano and organ with a variety of different teachers, he studied theory and counterpoint with his father, who helped guide him through his first compositions.
In 1894 Ives went on to study at Yale University; however, just six weeks after he matriculated his father died suddenly of a stroke, changing his life drastically. While Ives studied music and composed actively throughout his time at Yale—finding a mentor in Horatio Parker—after graduating he found a job in insurance, where he would remain for 30 years. He never gave up hope of a musical career and continued to play and compose while he worked in insurance. Although there were periods of time when Ives had a tortured relationship with his music making, his compositional output continued to grow throughout the early 1900s. It is in this period that he increased his integration of vernacular and church music into his orchestra compositions, with pieces such as “Washington’s Birthday” (which you might have heard us play last season!)
Considered by many as one of the most significant pieces of American classical music ever written, “The Unanswered Question” was originally written in 1908, and later revised between 1930-35. It did not receive its first performance until May 11, 1946. Ives scored the revised version for four flutes (alternately two flutes, oboe, and clarinet), trumpet, and strings. “The Unanswered Question” belongs to Ives’s period of increased experimentation in his compositions during the early twentieth-century. It exhibits polytonal and atonal canons in addition to multiple layers of music distinguished by rhythm, pitch content, and sonority.
Throughout the piece you will hear three different groups of instruments. According to Ives, the strings provide a quiet background and represent “the silence of the Druids,” the solo trumpet asks “the perennial question of existence,” and the woodwind quartet plays the “fighting answerers” who try in vain to answer the trumpet’s lingering question. The three groups perform independent of one another, both in tempo and physically in different locations. As the piece progresses increased dissonance signifies the woodwinds’ growing frustration with their inability to answer the trumpet’s query. While you listen to this piece take a minute to close your eyes and intimately experience Ives’s remarkable creation.
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica”
Ludwig van Beethoven (baptized 1770-1827)
One of the most well known composers of Classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven displayed his musical talents at a very young age. His extensive compositional output includes symphonies, chamber music, solo piano music, choral works, opera, and a litany of solo instrumental pieces, among others. Beethoven was a crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras of Western music, which is clearly articulated by his three periods of composition (early, middle, late). Born out of the Classical genius of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven fundamentally re-ordered the period in regards to style, form, and tonality; and in doing so ushered in the Romantic Era.
Beethoven composed his third symphony in 1803, and conducted the first public performance in Vienna on April 7, 1805. Beethoven originally intended to dedicate the symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte and his fight against political tyranny; however, upon hearing that Napoleon had named himself emperor of France, Beethoven famously scratched the dedication off the original score. He instead titled the work Sinfonia Eroica (Heroic Symphony) with a dedication to his patron, Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz. While the story surrounding the symphony’s title is almost more well known than the work itself, it is the innovative nature of the work that is unmatched by any other of its time. As Toscanini famously said, “Some say it is Napoleon, some Hitler, some Mussolini. For me it is simply Allegro con brio.” With his third Symphony Beethoven piloted a symphonic revolution.
The “Eroica” is arguably the first symphony to capture the spirit of the Romantic Period; it is considered a turning point in music history, never before had symphonic music aspired to its dimensions. The symphony’s first audiences were taken aback by its seemingly bizarre characteristics, and consequently cited it as “horribly long” and a “most difficult” piece of music. However today we celebrate the “Eroica” for those exact reasons. Beethoven began sketching the “Eroica” at the time of the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter addressed to his brothers that reflects his despair over his increasing deafness and his desire to overcome his physical and emotional ailments in order to complete his artistic destiny. It was this emotional fire that fueled the creation of the “Eroica”.
Like most of its contemporaries the “Eroica” has four movements. The first, Allegro con brio, is marked by its expansive size as well as its two opening tonic chords. There is a marked absence of the “slow introduction,” which characterized Beethoven’s first two symphonies, as well as many others in the Classical period. The opening chords dissolve into a melody in the cello, which is soon undermined by one unexpected note—a C-sharp—that does not belong to the “home key.” Beethoven peppers the movement with motivic, metric and harmonic surprises. The second movement, Marcia funebre-Adagio assai, is a stunning funeral march, regarded by some as one of the most influential pieces of music that Beethoven ever composed. Beethoven harnesses the vulnerable nature of the oboe as the vehicle for the somber melody. Beethoven writes the following movement, a scherzo marked Allegro vivace, in juxtaposition with his funeral march. In this movement Beethoven makes his mark by playing with metric ambiguities and highlighting his use of three French horns (Beethoven’s contemporary audience expected only two) in the middle trio section. The last movement, Allegro molto, is a set of variations as opposed to the typical rondo form expected of the Classical symphony. Beethoven uses a melody from his “Prometheus Variations” for the theme. It seems fitting that Beethoven inserts a nod to the rebellious Greek Titan, Prometheus, who—despite angering the gods by stealing fire—persisted in order to help humanity. The magnificent coda brings the movement to its heroic close and cements Beethoven’s revolutionary genius. As Charles Rosen said, Beethoven took the rigid structures that came before fore him and transformed them into vehicles for the sublime.