Program notes by Michael Driscoll
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Igor Stravinksy was born in 1882 in Oranienbaum, west of St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was a bass opera singer in the Kiev Opera and the Maryinksy Theatre in St. Petersburg, and his mother was a Kiev native. Stravinsky studied piano and composition as a child. While attending law school in his twenties, he began private lessons with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a leading Russian composer. Stravinsky went on to achieve international fame as a composer of over 100 works that included symphonies, choral-orchestral works, and ballets for the Ballets Russes company founded by Sergey Diaghilev. Stravinsky’s third ballet for the Ballets Russes, The Rite of Spring, was so radical in its use of unconventional rhythms and dissonant harmonies that it provoked an uproar of jeers and boos at its 1913 Paris premiere. One of the first examples of modernism in music, The Rite of Spring is now widely regarded as one of the most influential orchestral compositions of the twentieth century.
Beginning in 1920, Stravinsky’s work began to reflect a scaled-down style known as neoclassicism. Symphony of Psalms, composed in 1930, reflected his exploration of Classical themes. During this period, Stravinsky lived with his family in Russia, Switzerland, and France before moving to the United States and becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1945. He subsequently received many honors and awards: for example, at a private dinner hosted by President John F. Kennedy, Stravinsky was honored with a U.S. State Department medal honoring the recognition his work had received around the world. Two years later, after President Kennedy was assassinated, Stravinsky composed Elegy for J.F.K., which was set to specially commissioned lyrics by W.H. Auden. Stravinsky died in New York City of heart failure at the age of 88 and, at his request, was buried in the Russian corner of San Michele island in Venice, Italy, close to the tomb of Sergey Diaghilev.
Symphony of Psalms
Serge Koussevitsky, director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned Stravinsky in 1930 to write a piece for the BSO’s 50th anniversary. Koussevitsky suggested that Stravinsky compose something “popular” for orchestra without chorus. Stravinsky, however, insisted on composing a psalm symphony, an idea that he had considered for some time. The result was the Symphony of Psalms, a choral symphony in three movements, which Stravinsky completed on August 15, 1930. The premiere performance was to take place in Boston during concerts on December 12 and 13, 1930. Koussevitsky fell ill, however, and the Boston performance of the Symphony of Psalms was delayed until the following week. As a result, the world premiere performance took place on December 13, 1930 in Brussels with Ernest Ansermet conducting the Brussels Philharmonic Society. The first Boston performance came six days later, on December 19, with Koussevitsky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Cecilia Society, prepared by Arthur Fiedler, served as the chorus. (The BSO’s resident chorus, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, was not formed until 1970.)
The instrumentation of the Symphony of Psalms is large and rather unusual, calling for 14 woodwinds, 13 brass, timpani, bass drum, harp, two pianos, cellos, and double basses. Interestingly, clarinets and upper stringed instruments are all excluded. This unusual combination of instruments and the very large number of woodwind and brass instruments required make this work a challenge to present for all but the largest and most well-resourced musical organizations. As a result, performances of the Symphony of Psalms are heard infrequently. Today’s performance featured a reduced-orchestra arrangement, created for this performance by Michael Driscoll. The arrangement retains many of the orchestral colors of Stravinsky’s original orchestration, but requires just six instruments: flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and piano.
The three movements of the symphony set Psalms 38, 39, and 150. The first movement begins with undulating arpeggio-like passages in the oboe and bassoon that are interrupted by sharp, staccato E minor chords. The unusual voicing of these E minor chords, with their emphasis on the extreme high and low registers of the instruments, creates a sonority that is unique in the choral-orchestra repertoire. The text of Psalm 38, a supplication to the Lord, begins with the altos singing a melodic line that consists of just two pitches that are a half-step apart, creating a ritualistic mood. The upper notes of the piano part at the entrance of the alto voices also marks the first entrance of a set of four notes that form the root idea of the entire symphony. Stravinsky described these four pitches as a sequence of “two minor thirds joined by a major third.” Various permutations of this four-note set permeate the entire work. The opening movement steadily builds in intensity, concluding with a final fortissimo plea to the Lord.
The second movement, a double fugue, harkens back to a compositional style most frequently associated with music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, though with Stravinsky’s unique twentieth-century compositional style. The oboe introduces the first fugue subject, which opens with the same four-note set of pitches that were first heard in the piano part of the opening movement, but now with the third note leaping up rather than down. The first fugue subject is then answered by the flute and piano, respectively. The soprano voices introduce the second fugue subject which is accompanied by the first fugue subject in the lower instruments. The second fugue subject is answered by the altos, tenors, and basses, successively. After an orchestral interlude, Stravinsky closes the movement by bringing the voices together in unison on a new melodic idea, a literal representation of the text ‘Et immisit in os meum canticum novum’ (And he put a new song in my mouth).
Stravinsky noted that the Psalm text of the second movement is a prayer “that a new canticle be put into our mouths,” and the “alleluia” that opens the third movement is that canticle. The slowly repeated, weighty “laudate” (praise) figures that follow the opening “alleluia” create a sense of the holiness that is suggested by the text (Praise the Lord in his holy places). A sudden shift to an allegro tempo begins with a rapid six-note rhythmic figure in the lower instruments. Stravinsky began composing the 150th Psalm first and this rhythmic motive was his first compositional idea for the work. According to Stravinsky, the allegro in Psalm 150 “was inspired by a vision of Elijah’s chariot climbing the Heavens; never before had I written anything quite so literal as the triplets for horns and piano to suggest the horses and chariot.”
The re-entry of the chorus is characterized by rapid changes of texture and character that represent exuberant praise in various forms. After a brief return of the slow “alleluia,” the chorus and orchestra charge off again in another series of rapid passages. At the line “Laudate eum in cymbalis benesonantibus” (Praise him with sweet-sounding cymbals), the tempo slows and ‘sweet’ melodic lines, first heard in the soprano then bass voices, appear over slowly repeated figures in the lower piano part. Stravinsky closes to symphony returning to the slow “alleluia” passage that opens the concluding movement.
Demetrius Spaneas (b. 1969)
Demetrius Spaneas has traveled the world as a musical ambassador, connecting classical, jazz, and traditional music throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia to create international dialogue through artistic collaboration. He has been featured as a soloist and composer at major concert venues and international festivals in the three continents.
As a composer, his music has been performed to critical acclaim here and abroad. His work ranges from two operas, to symphonic and chamber works, to choral and vocal music, to film and television, and for clients such as HBO, the NFL, and the MLB Fan Cave in NYC. He has received numerous awards and grants from ASCAP, Meet the Composer, The American Music Center, and many other institutions.
A dynamic and sought-after speaker, Mr. Spaneas has given talks on topics ranging from music composition, to American history and culture, to business and marketing, to the creative process for artists and non-artists alike. He is a Fulbright Scholar Specialist in American Studies.
As a “cultural diplomat,” he has partnered with organizations such as the U.S. Embassy system, UNESCO, the Fulbright Commission, and various international academic and cultural institutions to promote American culture abroad and to connect artists from varied cultures and countries.
As a saxophonist, he has shared the stage with many of popular music’s most influential artists, such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Three Dog Night, Phil Bailey, Bernadette Peters, Sheena Easton, Geoffrey Osbourne, James Ingram, Peabo aBryson, Natalie Merchant, among many others, and for two years was the saxophonist with Motown’s famous Funk Brothers.
Demetrius co-owns Land and Sea Real Estate with his business partner and wife, JoAnn Kalogianis. Their company specializes in real estate investment, development, and luxury residential sales. They reside in Andover with their three children, Theo, Anastasia, and Dean, and their white fluffy dogs.
Andover Choral Society commissioned Demetrius Spaneas to compose becoming to conclude the celebration of Andover Choral Society’s 90th anniversary season. This is the first work commissioned by Andover Choral Society.
becoming explores the Creation story and some of mankind’s oldest questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? Drawing on texts from ancient Indian Hinduism, Greek and Roman mythology, Sufi mysticism, and the Book of Genesis, becoming explores the idea of creation as a spiritual evolution of humankind as well as our relationship with our world and all of creation. Spaneas writes:
I wanted to portray the idea of creation, but also of evolution – psychological, spiritual evolution, not Darwinian, per se. I do believe that humans are evolving constantly into a greater relationship with not only the world, but with all of creation. We are always in a state of “becoming.”
The piece starts with an existential question and ends with a transcendental statement. The oldest source (and the first section, “Who?”) from the Rig Veda, an ancient Indian collection of hymns, proposes a powerful existential question: What existed before Creation? Even more so, although it acknowledges a Creator, it brings doubt to whether or not the Creator even knew existence before Creation. A powerful statement 4,000 years ago!
In answer to that, we next move to “Him,” which is taken from Genesis. I use only God’s words, not the narrative, as is most common in ‘creation pieces’ because I want to have God answering the existential question by the bold statement, “I did this.” So in a way you go from an existential question to an answer in the Descartes vein of “I did, so I am.”
The third section, “Her,” brings the counterbalance to the male “warrior” God of Genesis by portraying the Mother Goddess of Greco-Roman mythology, here in the form of Diana the Goddess of the Moon. Not only is Diana female, but also the moon is always associated with women and mystery, as opposed to the male sun gods of mythology. The importance here is that we see the balance of male and female, yin and yang.
This is most evident in the fourth section, “Us,” which shows through the mystical Sufi poetry of Rumi that true union and transcendence are only attainable through the balance of divine energies. The lover is spurned on the first attempt due to his determination and sense of self. Once he releases ego and identifies with the beloved can they meld and be One. Thusly, Creation “becomes” Realization.
becoming is written for mixed-voice chorus, narrator, mezzo-soprano soloist, and an instrumental ensemble consisting of piano, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and percussion.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Born in Venice, Antonio Vivaldi was the eldest of nine children of Giovanni and Camilla Vivaldi. His father was a violinist at St. Mark’s Basilica and likely taught Antonio to play the violin. Antonio began studying for the priesthood at age fifteen and was ordained when he was twenty-five. Despite his 1703 ordination, by 1706 Vivaldi ceased celebrating Mass because of what he described as strettezza di petto (tightness of the chest), which likely was bronchial asthma.
Nicknamed il prete rosso (the red priest) because of his red hair, he was appointed maestro di violono (violin teacher) at the Ospedale della Pietà in September 1703. One of four Venetian orphanages for girls, the Pietà functioned as a music school, producing highly celebrated sacred service concerts for the public. Over the course of the next thirty-five years, Vivaldi worked on and off at the Pietà, eventually becoming maestro di cappella (master of the chapel). It was for the Pietà that Vivaldi wrote the majority of his sacred works. Although known today primarily for his instrumental works (he wrote more than five hundred sonatas and concertos), Vivaldi also composed forty operas, approximately forty cantatas and motets for solo voices, three oratorios, one complete mass, several mass movements, approximately thirty Psalm settings, and one Magnificat (RV 610).
Gloria, RV 589
The Gloria RV 589 is Vivaldi’s best-known choral work today. Although Vivaldi’s autograph score (the music he wrote by hand) is undated, scholars believe that it likely was around 1715-1718 for services at the Pietà. The text of Vivaldi’s Gloria comes from the ‘Gloria’ part of the Latin Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary, which consists of five parts: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Typically, composers of the era would set all five parts of the Mass Ordinary in one unified setting with each section of the Ordinary set as a separate movement. In this case, however, Vivaldi set only the Gloria text, which he divided into twelve movements.
The work is scored for soprano and alto soloists, SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) choir, oboe, trumpet, strings, bassoon, and organ. Somewhat unusual is the lack of timpani for the more celebratory movements. Each of the twelve movements of the Gloria differ in instrumentation, meter, key, and affective character. The work opens with what is probably the most recognized movement of the work. The celebratory opening movement (“Gloria in excelsis Deo”) is scored for the full orchestra and chorus and features octave leaps in the orchestral writing. The minor mode of the second movement (“Et in terra pax”) features twisting harmonies over a pulsing instrumental bass. Vivaldi uses dissonant suspensions on the word “pax” (peace) to create tension and resolution throughout the movement, perhaps to represent humankind’s hope and longing for peace. The major mode third movement, “Laudamus te,” is a delightful soprano duet accompanied by unison violins, violas, and continuo. The block chords of the “Gratias agimus tibi” sung by the choir give way to a florid imitative polyphonic texture.
Vivaldi begins the sixth movement with a pastoral setting of “Domine Deus” for soprano solo and oboe obbligato. The next movement, “Domine, Fili unigenite,” pairs the choral voices in various duet combinations in a jaunty triple meter. The “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” is the only movement of the work in which Vivaldi combines a soloist with the chorus. The plaintive alto solo accompanied by cello solo is interrupted by short choral interjections, which lead to the block chords of “Qui tollis peccata mundi.” The allegro tempo of the final solo movement, “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,” is characterized by rapid rhythmic figures in the strings.
The final section of the work brings back the full orchestra and chorus. The “Quoniam tu solus” is an abbreviated setting of the material from the first movement. This leads to final movement, the joyful “Cum Sancto Spiritu” fugue that Vivaldi adapted from a double-chorus work by Giovanni Maria Ruggieri (1665-c.1725).