Program Note Essay
S. Bach’s music career became more serious when he was appointed Kapellmeister at the royal court in Kothen and later in Leipzig, Germany, where he was contracted to compose music for services every week. However, Bach was better known as a keyboard player than a composer during his life time. When he was not writing music for services at the court, he wrote secular music for instruments. Among his comparably large oeuvre, Bach wrote several suites for keyboard (namely for organ and harpsichord during that period of time.
The most well known are sets of six suites complied in the collections of French Suite, English Suite, and Partitas. The name “English” bares no stylistic reference or indication to the music. It became known as English Suite due to the subtitle “Fait pour les Anglois” (written for the English) found on a manuscript copy made by Bach’s son. During the early 18th century, the dance suites are more or less standardized as a sequence of four dance movements of different nationality, Allemande, Courante, Galop Sarabande, and Gigue, with optional dances such as Bourrée, Gavotte, or Minuet inserted between Sarabande and Gigue.
The English Suite makes its distinction from the French by the inclusion of an opening prelude that was more commonly seen in an orchestra work. Without exception, the prelude of Suite No. 2 opens up the movement with energy and brilliance. The following Allemande is a graceful German dance in duple meter. Courante, slightly faster than Allemande, is a French dance in 3/2 time. Sarabande, characteristically accented on the second beat, is a slow and solemn Spanish dance.
In this work, a pair of Bourrées comes after Sarabande and before Gigue. Bourrée of French origin is a fast dance in double time, which usually starts on an up-beat. Gigue is a lively English dance in fast triple meter known by the English as “jig. ” With its fast 6/8 tempo and wider leaps, the gigue concludes the suite with a cheery spirit and fun. Polonaise, literally means Polish in French, is Poland’s national dance. It is characterized by the slow triple meter with a distinct downbeat divided into long-short-short rhythmic figure.
The history of Polonaise as an instrumental music dated way back to the Baroque era, but it was Chopin who transformed the conventional genre into musical poetry. Franz Liszt retired from the public stage at the age of 35 and began to focus more on composing and writing about music. While he was writing Chopin’s biography in memory of the death of the Polish composer in 1849, it was inevitable that Liszt studied Chopin’s music and composed several piano works in the genres that were considered Chopin’s mastery.
He wrote two Polonaises in the early 1850s; No. 2 was more popular than No. 1. In fact, Liszt was so tired from hearing the piece being performed badly, the second Polonaise was banned from his masterclasses. The program tonight includes the less performed Polonaise No. 1 in C minor. With a darker tone, it was subtitled “Melancolique,” which was withheld by the publisher. Although Liszt might have attempted to tackle the genre in a Chopinesque fashion, the music speaks Lisztian in his unique treatments of harmony, texture, and form.
If there were such a thing as the “Idol” franchise back in nineteenth-century Europe, Liszt would certainly be the one championed. Not only did he possess brilliant techniques as a pianist, he was also stunningly handsome. His charismatic presence along with the dramatic performance on the piano always brought his lady fans into hysterical screaming and fainting. Mesmerized and inspired by the ravishing techniques of the greatest violinist Paganini, Liszt swore to become the Paganini of piano.
He was also fascinated by the story of Faust who exchanged his soul with Mephistopheles for higher enlightenment and worldly pleasure. Liszt’s music is often marked by its technical difficulty; perhaps it was an underlying desire to gloat his devilish virtuosity. Liszt wrote four waltzes and a polka bore the title “Mephisto. ” Of all, the first Mephisto Waltz is most performed today. Mephisto Waltz No. 1 was programmed after Nicolau Lenau’s poem, Faust, titled “The Dance in the Village Inn. ” Its scene is set at a wedding feast in a village inn. Mephistopheles and Faust pass by and join the celebration.
The festive music becomes sensuous and beguiling as Mephistopheles casts his spell on the villagers through violin playing. Faust, enchanted by the music, seduces the bride and waltz frantically together out the door and into the wood. The sound of the violin fades while nightingale sings a love song. Suddenly, music builds to a climax as the pair plunges into amorous bliss. The music is erotic in nature, and the technical demand of the piece is as expected. However, it is not merely a shallow display of showmanship, but rather a dramatic representation of the devil incarnation.
As if it is a play within a play, the pianist who possesses the devilish power will captivate your body and soul through the music. Since Shakespeare’s adaptation of the story, Romeo and Juliet has become the most wellknown love tragedy that has been told and retold in theaters as well as in symphonies, musicals, operas, films, and ballets. Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was written for a ballet initially commissioned by the Kirov Ballet, a renowned ballet company based in St. Petersburg Russia that is still operating today. Although the birth of the first roduction wasn’t exactly a smooth one, after a heavy revision of the score and the choreography, Romeo and Juliet became an international standard repertoire. Prokofiev composed Romeo and Juliet during his later Soviet period after years of touring and residing in the US and Europe. It was a time of political turmoil in Russia where artistic creativity was closely monitored by the dictatorship. Nevertheless, Prokofiev was able to remain true to his modernistic musical language in the harmonic treatments while attained the expressiveness through romantic lyricism.
The original orchestral score contains three suites. The piano version transcribed and premiered by Prokofiev himself consists of 10 selected pieces from the suites. The music vividly portrays the tenderness of the young love, the dazzling ball, the lurking violence of the blood feud, the compassionate Father Laurence, the impulsive and restless Mercutio, and the bittersweet parting of the two lovers. A little spoiler alert! Some may find the opening tune from “Montagues and Capulets” quite familiar thanks to the adoption as the theme in UK’s reality show “The Apprentice. “