April 1, 2017 - Saturday
Hui Shan Chin, Piano
Rosa Hart Theatre - 7:30 PM
Special thanks to Bryan Proksch, Lamar University, author of the following Program Notes.
About Last of the Mohicans
Trevor Jones (b. 1949), Music from The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
A South African, Trevor Jones has been an active film composer since 1979. The Last of the Mohicans stands as the most well-known film for which he wrote a score, though more recently he composed for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Musicians might be familiar with his score to Brassed Off, a movie about bands in Britain featuring a young Ewan McGregor.
Jones’s score for The Last of the Mohicans reflects the plot of the movie in emotional content more so than sonic or stylistic approach. Set during in the 1750s during the French and Indian War, the music sounds nothing like 1750s music in either the Native American or Western classical senses. This is not to say that the score is “bad,” only that the content is designed for effect instead of historical accuracy. For instance the main theme, “Promontory” sounds like modern Irish/Scottish folk music (I am thinking of Máiréad Nesbitt the so-called “Celtic Woman” violinist) than anything that might have been played during the war. Broadly Jones’s music includes typical film-score writing for orchestra, participating in a tradition that extends back to the “Golden Age” of film in the 1950s. The music to Mohicans proved enduring enough to justify Jones revising and re-recording much of the score in 2000.
About Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 54
Robert Schumann (1810–1856), Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54 (1845)
Robert Schumann certainly stands among the greatest composers of the post-Beethoven generation. His works in the smaller forms—songs, characteristic works for piano—especially stand out as remarkable. In these he shows an uncanny ability to present poignant vignettes of emotional states, sometimes in movements as short as thirty seconds. During his lifetime, Schumann made a name for himself as a critic and newspaper editor in Leipzig. His prose writing is idiosyncratic in the extreme, and Schumann was never afraid to praise or criticize as he saw fit. We can credit him with popularizing Chopin and Berlioz outside of France and for crowning (after many others fell short) a young Johannes Brahms as Beethoven’s true successor.
The Piano Concerto presents Schumann in his home element in some ways but also outside of his comfort zone in other ways. Early in his music career Schumann was regarded as a strong up-and-coming concert pianist. On the other hand his piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, opposed Robert’s marriage to his daughter Clara (who went on to become the famous piano virtuoso that Robert never did become). A complicating factor for Robert’s career was an unfortunate decision to use some kind of mechanical device to increase the independence of his fingers, which actually ruined his hand and forced his retirement from concertizing. Hence it was actually Clara Schumann who played the premiere of Robert’s only piano concerto.
The opening movement, which he composed in 1841 as a stand-alone fantasia for piano and orchestra, begins with bold statements by the piano before engaging in a more obbligato solo with contrapuntal accompaniment. The orchestra plays an active role; the oboist engages in dialogue with the pianists, as do others. In style and substance the movement sounds as you would expect any work of the mid-nineteenth century: Mendelssohnian orchestral colors merged with a Germanic approach to piano virtuosity foreshadowing Brahms.
Schumann added the closing two movements in 1845 to complete the standard fast-slow-fast concerto form. The slow movement presents some of Schumann’s most beautiful and lyrical writing, and eventually includes pastoral horn fifths that lead without pause to the finale. The boisterous closing movement uses rondo form in an effort to maximize the number of times the audience gets to enjoy Schumann’s unique ability to craft a short, compelling, and instantly memorable theme. The pianist’s notes fly by so fast by the end that we can only marvel at Clara Schumann’s virtuosity and lament Robert Schumann’s hand injury.
About Enigma Variations
Edward Elgar (1857–1934), Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma Variations,” op. 36 (1899)
It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Edward Elgar rekindled the art of composition among the English after a century of neglect. Not that there were no English composers between Purcell and Elgar, mind you, rather Elgar achieved an international reputation and at the same time was so overtly English. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and many other English composers that followed openly acknowledged the debt they owed to Elgar as they looked to build on his foundation.
Elgar seems to have encouraged the alternate title for his op. 36 variations: the “Enigma Variations.” “Enigma” comes from his label for the theme movement that opens the set, but this is not really the answer to the still-unanswered question of what exactly the enigma is. The work is actually enigmatic on two fronts. First, Elgar claimed to have come up with the opening “Enigma” theme (heard in the melody beginning in the first measure) while improvising a set of variations on “a well-known tune.” Thus one could argue that the whole variation set is actually based on this “well-known tune”—with the inevitable problem that no one in Elgar’s time or since has been able to figure out what that well-known tune actually was! The second enigma is less cryptic: each movement is based upon the personalities and quirks of Elgar’s friends. Elgar noted in 1911 that “each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people.” So there is an inside joke or hidden message in each of the fourteen variations that only Elgar and the person he refers to would understand fully.
The initial theme itself mirrors the accents in saying “ED-ward EL-gar” to the extent that he signed letters with the motive on occasion. In a sense then, the variations all include Elgar himself as one of the characters (or perhaps Elgar’s perception of that person). The variations that follow typically include the initials of a real person at the outset. Variation 1 “C.A.E.” is Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife (very considerate!). Variations 2, 5, 6, 11, 12 are all musicians, including amateurs. Along the way we meet an author (variation 3), an architect (variation 7), a secretary (variation 8), a stuttering friend (variation 10), a countess (variation 13), and of course Elgar himself at the end (variation 14).
Surely the highlight of the cycle is the beautifully haunting ninth variation, “Nimrod,” in reference to a Biblical hunter. The person involved here is Augustus J. Jaeger (Jaeger is German for “hunter”), who edited a number of Elgar’s compositions for publication with a highly critical eye. Perhaps the lushness is Elgar trying to convince Jaeger to leave the variation untouched. The variation does have an uncanny resemblance in both theme and affect to the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata: Elgar later said that Jaeger used that very movement to encourage him to continue composing when he was at a low point in his career. Would that we all could produce such a response to the encouragement received from close friends during troubled times!