Classical IV: Scheherazade & Other Remarkable Women

Tonight’s concert is the centerpiece of our season, featuring Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous orchestral suite based on the Arabian Nights, an overture from one of the most prolific female composers in history, and one of the finest concertos from the 20th century played by one of the YSO’s finest.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
(November 14, 1805-May 14, 1847)
Overture in C major
(1832)
     Fanny Hensel was one of the most prolific female composers of the nineteenth century. Born into a German family of highly-educated and musical men and women, she struggled with conflicting impulses of composing versus social expectations for her high-class status. She also had to contend with the considerable shadow cast by her famous brother. Even her “enlightened” family proved somewhat patronizing. Her father once wrote to her:

What you wrote to me [in a previous letter] about your musical occupations with reference to and in comparison with Felix was both rightly thought and expressed. Music will perhaps become his profession, whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing. We may therefore pardon him some ambition and desire to be acknowledged in a pursuit which appears very important to him, because he feels a vocation for it, whilst it does you credit that you have always shown yourself good and sensible in these matters; and your very joy at the praise he earns proves that you might, in his place, have merited equal approval. Remain true to these sentiments and to this line of conduct; they are feminine, and only what is truly feminine is an ornament to your sex.

Thankfully, she composed and eventually published 450+ works of excellent craftsmanship and lyricism that reflect influences of Bach and Beethoven. The Overture in C Major is not the only work she wrote for orchestra, but it is the only one for orchestra alone. Researchers estimate its completion as 1832, and Fanny herself conducted the premiere in her home in 1834. The Overture remained unpublished, however, during her lifetime and for more than 100 years after. It starts with a slow gentle introduction, soon giving way to a fast section with interesting harmonies, peppy rhythmic energy, and some nice interaction between various sections of the orchestra. One can hear several Mendelssohnian family traits—technical flash, singing melodic lines, and interesting yet sophisticated contrasts.

Aaron Copland
(November 14, 1900-December 2, 1990)
Clarinet Concerto
(1949)
     In 1947, jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman commissioned Aaron Copland to write a concerto for clarinet. Goodman said:

I made no demands on what Copland should write. He had completely free rein, except that I should have a two-year exclusivity on playing the work. I paid two thousand dollars and that’s real money. At the time there were not too many American composers to pick from… We never had much trouble except for a little fracas about the spot before the cadenza where he had written a repetition of some phrase. I was a little sticky about leaving it out—it was where the viola was the echo to give the clarinet a cue. But I think Aaron finally did leave it out…

Copland began work on the concerto while in Rio de Janiero and made many drafts over the next two years. He wrote:

The instrumentation being clarinet with strings, harp, and piano, I did not have a large battery of percussion to achieve jazzy effects, so I used slapping basses and whacking harp sounds to simulate them. The Clarinet Concerto ends with a fairly elaborate coda in C major that finishes off with a clarinet glissando – or ‘smear’ in jazz lingo.

     The two movements are played without a break, connected by a cadenza. The first movement’s pensive, solitary mood is consistent throughout, emphasized by an angular melody with large leaps and harmonic ambiguity. The cadenza begins slowly but gradually speeds up, setting the stage for the jazzy second movement. About the finale, Copland wrote that it was:

an unconscious fusion of elements obviously related to North and South American popular music (for example, a phrase from a currently popular Brazilian tune, heard by me in Rio, became embedded in the secondary material).

     After several delays, the premiere finally took place on a 1949 radio broadcast with Goodman and the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner. The concerto immediately became a staple of the clarinet repertoire and is probably the most popular of its genre from the twentieth century.

Angelique Poteat
(b. January 8, 1986)
Open Solo
(2019)
     Angelique Poteat is a native of the Pacific Northwest. Her music has been described as “engaging, restless” (The New York Times) and “serious and nicely crafted” (American Record Guide), and it has been recorded and performed on four continents by ensembles including the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, IWO Flute Quartet, Claviola Ensemble, Northwest Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Northwest, Saratoga Orchestra, and Sound Ensemble. Poteat is the first-place winner of the 2015 American Prize in Orchestral Composition, as well as the recipient of grants from Seattle 4Culture, Artist Trust, Allied Arts Foundation, and Seattle Office of Arts & Culture. 2019-20 season highlights include two commissions for the Seattle Symphony’s Masterworks Series, a commission for Emerald City Music with dance, and a clarinet quintet for clarinetist Laura DeLuca and other members of the Seattle Symphony.
     Open Solo was composed as an encore to the Copland Clarinet Concerto. The phrase is used in jazz to denote an improvised solo section of unspecified duration. While the composition is not improvised and certainly has a fixed duration, there is a fluid, improvised quality to the musical lines, embellishing several of the ideas presented in Copland’s piece in addition to Poteat’s original composed materials.

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov
(March 18, 1844-June 21, 1908)
Scheherazade, Op. 35
(1888)
     Essentially self-taught as a composer, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote operas, songs and orchestral works. His three most popular works hail from the same two-year period (1887-88): Russian Easter Overture, Capriccio Español and Scheherazade. His legacy, however, is in his approach to orchestration, described thoroughly in his text Principles of Orchestration, still required reading for composers. Nowhere are his powers in this area more obvious than in Scheherazade. The preface to the score includes the following:

The Sultan Schahriar, convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women, vows to slay each of his wives after the first night. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, saved her life by recounting to the Sultan a succession of tales over a period of a thousand and one nights. Overcome by curiosity, the monarch postponed from day to day his wife’s execution, and eventually renounced his resolution altogether. Many were the marvels recounted to Schahriar by Scheherazade. For the telling of these tales, she drew from the verses of the poets, the words of folk songs and tales, connecting her stories one with the other.

The tales in question are, of course, The Arabian Nights, and for this orchestral suite, the composer drew inspiration from four: “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” “The Tale of the Kalendar Prince,” “The Young Prince and The Young Princess,” and “The Festival at Baghdad—The Sea—The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior.” Originally, the composer had intended to call the movements “Prelude,” “Ballade,” “Adagio,” and “Finale,” but was convinced by colleagues to give them descriptive titles to guide the listener to the images and fairy-tales that inspired him. Musically, there are two themes that appear in different contexts and moods throughout the work. The one unifying, programmatic element is the “Scheherazade” melody heard in the solo violin, which links the movements in the same way the Sultana linked her stories. The rest is left to the imagination of the listener, but the images are almost impossible to avoid, particularly considering how the piece has been used and imitated in adventure movies and television.

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2019