Sir Edward Elgar grew up in suburban Worcestershire, in the south of England, helping his dad at the musical instrument shop, where he learned to play and repair most instruments. His other great passion was taking long bike rides through the countryside on a Royal Sunbeam he dubbed “Phoebus.” The premiere of his Enigma Variations in 1899 brought him national attention at age forty-three, and soon he was downright famous. One of the most well-known movements of the Enigma variations is dedicated to his good friend August Jaeger, an employee of the London music publisher Novello. When Jaeger passed away from long illness at age forty-nine, Elgar wrote this quiet Elegy in his memory.
Astor Piazzolla was born outside of Buenos Aires but lived in New York City from the age of four until his return to Argentina at age fifteen. His dad bought him his first bandoneón when he was eight, and it was this instrument—the heart of every tango band— with which he would become so closely associated. Piazzolla’s aspiration was to imbue the language of tango with the elements of contemporary composition, and to this end he studied with Alberto Ginastera in Argentina and the renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
Piazzolla composed a work he called Verano porteño for his quintet, initially as part of a set of incidental pieces for a play (residents of Buenos Aires refer to themselves as porteños, and Verano means summer). When it became popular on its own, it was natural to complete the set of four seasons. The sold-out 1970 premiere was released as an astounding live LP. A few years after Piazzolla’s death, violinist Gidon Kremer commissioned Leonid Desyatnikov to arrange them for solo violin and string orchestra. Desyatnikov made some composerly additions and revisions of his own, heightening the degree to which Vivaldi’s baroque exemplars are intertwined with tango elements. Just remember, the seasons are opposite in the Southern Hemisphere! So in Verano Porteño you will hear quotes from Vivaldi’s Winter.
The harp found in orchestras today can trace its lineage as far back as human civilization. But its current form was the result of certain technical innovations which occurred in France in the nineteenth century. The double-action pedal harp, which granted performers the ability to play each of the chromatic notes of the scale, was patented in 1810 by a piano maker, Sébastien Érard. It featured seven pedals, each with three positions. A competing design by Gustave Lyon, based on cross-strung models popular in renaissance Spain, was produced by the Pleyel piano firm in 1897 and for awhile the two very different designs co-existed. Pleyel carried immense cachet in the musical life of France at the time, producing more than 2500 pianos annually and producing concerts at the Salle Pleyel, where Chopin had performed. Their marketing acumen led them to approach the most esteemed composer of the time, Claude Debussy, to write something to showcase their frightening two-headed instrument. His response was Danses sacree et profane, or Dances sacred and profane, premiered in 1904. Fortunately Debussy’s piece can be played on an Erard-style pedal harp, for that is the design which has proven fittest through natural selection. The two dances are joined into one continuous movement.
In the eighteenth century, noble and aristocratic Venetian families were watching their fortunes dwindle away as trade now focused on Atlantic routes. The specter of poverty and civic unrest were kept in check by the carnevale, akin to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras but occupying almost half the calendar year. One of the products of so many masked bacchanales was a proliferation of orphans. Consequently, a small group of orphanages operated by the church grew into institutions of great wealth and prestige; chief among these was the Ospedale della pietá. The girls of this institution were given instruction in music, and their school ensemble developed into what was for a time the finest orchestra in Europe. For the better part of his professional career, Vivaldi was their leader and teacher, and supplied music for them to play—so much music! There are multiple Vivaldi concertos for almost every instrument of the modern orchestra plus many now obsolete. His Four Seasons are four violin concertos, in three movements each (fast-slow-fast), and accompanied in the original publication with a set of four sonnets describing those seasonal items each of the concertos depicts. The success of these works today is a testament to how effective Vivaldi’s portrayal of natural phenomena still are; we easily hear the crispness of autumn air, the barking of a shepherd’s dog, and the flurry of a winter snowstorm.
© Jamey Lamar 2018