Dvo?k, Copland & Orff

October 29, 1988, 08:00 PM
John Currie, Conductor
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Te Deum Op. 103 Antonn Leopold Dvo?k
Four Dance Episodes Aaron Copland
Carmina Burana Carl Orff
Katherine Luna , Soprano
Jonathan Mack , Tenor
Nickolas Karousatos , Baritone
Los Angeles Children's Chorus ,


Dvo?k 's Te Deum is one of the most joyful and celebratory of all the settings of this ancient hymn. Although it has close ties with the United States (see the historical notes) its appeal is strongly Czech, containing strong elements of folk-song and dance.
The first movement opens dramatically with festive solo drums. The strings take up an earthy dance figure leading to the sonorous choral entry. In all this, as later in the work, the suggestion of tolling bells is never far distant. The movement relaxes for the soprano solo "Sanctus," supported by quietly chanting men's voices. During this quieter episode, the dance melody heard at the beginning is now quoted gently by solo woodwinds, including the English horn. The opening drumming and dancing returns briefly and jubilantly to end the movement.
The second movement (the bass solo "Tu Rex Gloriae") is ushered in by the brass, without a break. The powerful operatic lines of the soloist are punctuated by two thoughtful choral passages, the first by the women's voices, the second by the men.
The third movement is a strong, folksy scherzo for chorus and orchestra without soloists. Sections of the chorus call to one another, building to dramatic cries of "et rege eos." The movement ends gently with sections of the chorus quietly calling "per singulos dies" (day by day) and "in saeculum saeculi" (world without end).
The fourth movement is joined to the third. It opens as a fine, essentially operatic scene for solo soprano and chorus, "Dignare Domine." Soprano and bass soloists join in a blessing (not in the usual Te Deum text) punctuated by ecstatic cries of "Alleluia" from the chorus. The final emotional cadence from the voices leaves the orchestra to conclude the festivities with the happy drum patterns and dance melody we heard at the beginning of the work.
Carmina Burana is one of the few Twentieth-century choral works to gain almost universal popularity. Orff deliberately restricted himself to a direct and apparently very simple melodic and harmonic style. Indeed, the work's immediate musical energy, charm and excitement, coupled with the appeal of lyrics ranging from the sensually tender to the downright raunchy, have given rise to some musical snobbery from those who claim to be offended by its accessibility, sheer popularity and glorious vulgarity.
Personally, I have no doubt that Carmina is a work of genius, full of subtleties in structure, orchestral color, and word setting. That it is also popular and entertaining (and uses secular rather than sacred texts) simply adds to its great basic strengths. No musical note is needed if the audience is prepared to respond to the words in their earthiness and humor. But those who already know the work may care to listen afresh to the wonderful orchestration which illumines the deceivingly simple melodies and harmonies. Orff never fails to make even his most vamping accompaniments sound glittering and alluring. I would advise the first-time listener to follow the translations if convenient, but above all revel in the primitive rhythms and tunefulness of the music. This is a celebration of life itself. Perhaps a short list of my own particular "highlights" will also enhance your enjoyment: the glorious confidence which defies bad luck in the first and last movements; the hilarious springy rhythms of the dance which opens the "On the lawn" section; the rumbustiousness of the drinking scenes; the wonderful stratospheric cadenza of the solo soprano as she surrenders totally to love; and, above all, the comic portrait of the roasting swan, the only tenor solo. How Orff must have enjoyed casting a tenor in the role of a spitted swan, skewered from stem to stern, and making him sing of his overheated plight in the most preposterously high notes ever written for that voice.
One last minor note. The sections of the work which are in Latin have traditionally been pronounced as German or "school" Latin. Some years ago discussing this at the Edinburgh Festival, Riccardo Muti assured me that the aged Orff had insisted on Italianate pronunciation for Muti's recording. This, declared Orff, was what he had always intended. Tonight, the Master Chorale and soloists will use the more mellifluous Italian pronunciation for the Latin sections.
Antonin Dvo?k 's Te Deum was first performed in New York City on October 21, 1892 at a belated celebration of the fourth centenary of Columbus' discovery of the New World. The work illustrates Dvo?ks conscientious acceptance of contractual obligations he had undertaken with Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, wife of a millionaire New York grocer. She had founded in 1885 the National Conservatory of Music. She enthusiastically offered Dvo?k the Directorship of the Conservatory with relatively light teaching duties and no significant administrative burdens for the then princely salary of $15,000 a year. Lengthy negotiations across the Atlantic on the matter showed Dvo?k to be a cautious and astute business man. Indeed, due to the subsequent financial straits suffered by Mr. Thurber, Dvo?k ultimately did not receive full payment of the proposed salary.
Mrs. Thurber, realizing the imminent advent of the Columbus centenary, had commissioned for a fee of $1000 the composition of Joseph Rodman Drake's (1795- 1820) poem, The American Flag. The poem's very late arrival at Prague, however, in the summer of 1892, hindered its completion in time for the centennial performance. Dvo?k forestalled any disaster by the provident composition of his Te Deum. Even then this work was not performed until October 21, nine days after the Centennial.
He did not complete The American Flag until after his composition of the New World Symphony (#9) in 1893. The secular cantata received its premier performance in New York on May 4, 1895, a few days after Dvo?k had sailed for home in Prague. The Te Deum marks Dvo?k 's last religious composition on a liturgical text, it having been preceded by his Requiem of 1890 and Stabat Mater of 1877. Perhaps it is his most original contribution to church music and his truest confession of faith. Some see in its choral techniques Dvo?ks affinity to Bach's spirit.
The iTe Deums structure is that of a choral symphony exhibiting four movements, rather than the more traditional three subdivisions. Dvo?k scored it for soprano and bass soloists, mixed chorus and standard romantic orchestra. An English adaptation of the text was furnished in 1937 by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The Te Deum is aptly and briefly described by Dvo?k 's excellent modern biographer, John Clapham (Dvo?k  (N.Y., W.W. Norton, 1979) p. 1121: "His approach to the text was certainly novel, and resulted in a delightful blend of simple and direct diatonic writing, verging on the primitive, coupled at times with sections that are adventurous in both melody and harmony. The cantata opens with a forthright display of jubilation that reminds us of a peal of bells, set against a conflicting triplet rhythm for the kettledrums (Te Deum laudamus . . . ) In the second part the noble bass solo, "Rex gloriae" is set between fine passages for bass choir; and the section Te ergo quaesumus ...' a verse which affected the composer deeply because of the phrase 'redeemed by Thy precious blood' is entrancingly set for sopranos and altos over a pulsing accompaniment and with violins soaring above like an angelic choir. The third part (Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis )  turns into a kind of dance. In the final section (Dignare, Domine . . . ) the opening material returns to become the basis for an ecstatic conclusion."
Aaron Copland (1900-) was a mature 42 when in April, 1942, Agnes de Mille telephoned him to inform him of her latest idea for a ballet. When she broached the topic for a cowboy ballet, Copland reacted: "Oh no! I've already composed one of these (Billy The Kid). I don't want to do another cowboy ballet. Can't you write a script about Ellis Island!"
De Mille, observed Copland, then "got up and loped about her studio showing me some of the steps she was going to use." After duly considering that this proposed cowboy ballet was to be a considerably different one from Eugene Loring's choreography of Billy The Kid, Copland agreed to compose it. De Mille's scenario indicated that her ballet would not evince epic emotions or be about empire builders. Rather it would be a "pastoral, a lyric joke, a Taming of a Shrew."
Copland states that in May, 1942, when he left for Tanglewood, Rodeo was in his head, and he had only to write it down, which he did by September. Sol Hurok, however, wanted a longer title for advertising purposes. Hence the subtitle, The Courting of Burnt Ranch, furnished some inkling of the story's content. A tomboy cowgirl, infatuated with the Head Wrangler and Champion Roper of Burnt Ranch, strives to impress him through her dressing and acting like a man. Not impressed, he rides off leaving her in tearful fury. At a ranch dance shortly thereafter, invited town girls, whom our heroine despises, attract the attentions of the men at the dance with their lovely dresses and charm. In chagrin the tomboy, wearing her dungarees and boots, retreats to her room there to change into her party dress. When she reemerges, she becomes the belle of the ball to win the Roper as her partner.
Rodeo became a smash hit with over 73 performances in 1942-43 alone. In 1943, Copland extracted an orchestral suite from the ballet entitled Dance Episodes from Rodeo (op. 47a). It was first heard under Arthur Fiedler with the Boston "Pops" at Tanglewood, May 28, 1943, and in New York under Alexander Smallens at Lewisohn Stadium with the N.Y. Philharmonic on June 22 that same year.
Darius Milhaud writes of Rodeo: "What strikes one immediately in Copland's work is the feeling of the soul of his own country, the wide plains with their soft colourings, where the cowboy sings his nostalgic songs in which, even when the violin throbs and leaps to keep up with the pounding dance rhythms, there is always a tremendous sadness, and underlying distress, which nevertheless does not prevent them from conveying the sense of sturdy strength and sun-drenched movement. His ballet Rodeo gives perfect expression to this truly national art."
Carl Orff (1895-1982) could not have highlighted better his developed philosophy of music composition than by his selection of twenty-five piquant secular poems from the Thirteenth-century manuscript found in 1803 in the German Benedictine Abbey of Beuron for his Carmina Burana. Before 1936, he had composed several works under the strongly romantic influence of Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alexander Scriabin. Most of these Orff later destroyed or repudiated. Carmina Burana, as he firmly asserted in 1937, after its first performance in Frankfurt, "begins my complete works."
By 1936, Orff had thus come to reject that complex highblown Romanticism which had characterized much of his early work. This Romanticism emerged from the harmonic vagaries and thematic principles of Wagnerian music drama. It subsequently developed into the chromatically lush harmonies of Strauss and Mahler and culminated in the Twelve-tone system of the Second Viennese School. Orff broke with this tradition of opera and music composition because of his concern for the growing estrangement it was producing between modern music and the listening public. With this frame of mind he returned to the principles of Monteverdian opera and further manifested artistic kinship with Stravinsky and Hindemith.
Using Stravinsky's The Wedding and Oedipus Rex as models for Carmina Burana, Orff described his work in its subtitle translated from the Latin "Secular songs to be sung by singers and choruses accompanied by instruments and magical tableaux," a "scenic cantata," his own type of 'gesamptkunstwerk.'
The stage sketch for the first production of this precedent-shattering work depicts the chorus seated statically in tiers behind several gothic arched openings. These tiers form a broad V on either side of a huge figure of Dame Fortune, Empress of the World, dominating a great wheel of fortune. That wheel of fortune was familiar to its age's poets in the Romanesque outer rims of those spoked and traceried rose windows of numerous churches. In the sketch too, soloists, dancers and mimes occupy the forefront of the stage. The primitive power and attractiveness, however, of Orffs music have made Carmina Burana heard more often in concert than in its proper quasi-operatic setting.
Selecting from over 200 poems in the manuscript, Orff found 25 which furnished exuberant material for his musical concepts. Their straightforward rhythmic and rhymed contents in vulgar Latin, medieval French or German exhibited and fully demonstrated Orffs personal style.
That style has been succinctly summarized by David W. Eagle. He observes that the cantata has a direct and immediate appeal because of its basic simplicity and its primitive rhythmic drive. Harmony is reduced to unisons, octaves, thirds, and fifths. There is no polyphony or counterpoint. Melodic figurations are repeated obsessively and hypnotically. "Since melody and harmony are relatively unimportant, we often find, observes Eagle, "entire sections based on a single harmony . . . . The rhythmic ostinato is the thing, but rhythms are kept simple with each pattern being repeated until it is exhausted or another pattern begins. Elements of Nineteenth-century popular songs are mixed with quasi-Gregorian chant, secular medieval song and dance in an eclectic hodgepodge."
The three main sections of Carmina Burana, framed between a prologue and an epilogue entitled Fortune, Empress of the World, are: in the Springtime, in the Tavern, and in the Court of Love. Soloists, children's choir, large and small mixed chorus are accompanied by an orchestra providing the most novel musical interest, not only in its distinctive instrumentation which emphasizes wind and percussive instruments, but also in the use of the clearly profiled individual tone colors of the different instruments.
The prominent German commentator, Karl Schumann, provides an excellent summary overview of the more philosophical aspects of Orffs achievement. "Evocative melody, unambiguous rhythms, and primitive pictures in sound are the basic features of these profane songs; the tendency is toward universality and objectivity. No individual destiny is touched upon - there is no dramatis personae in the normal sense of the term. Instead, primeval forces are invoked, such as the ever-turning wheel of fortune, the revivifying effect of love and those elements in man which prompt him to enjoyment of earthly and all too-earthly pleasure. The principle figure is man as a natural being delivered over to forces stronger than himself. This universality of intention corresponds to Orff's concept of his 'synthesis of the arts (gesamptkunstwerk]' as a unified combination of movement, song, dance, sound and magical enchantment."

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