|This multimedia program consists of orchestral pieces that have been inspired by paintings, from the Danse macabre by Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead to Liszt’s Hunnenschlacht (The Battle of the Huns) and the world premiere of William Popp’s The Galleries, based on four different paintings.|
(October 9, 1835-December 16, 1921)
Danse macabre, Op. 40
Visual images depicting the personification of Death reach as far back as the Middle Ages, telling the legendary story: Death appears at midnight every year on Halloween. He calls forth the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle. The skeletons dance for him until the cock crows at dawn, and they return to their graves until the next year.
Saint-Saëns’ musical representation of these images began in 1872 as an art song for voice and piano. In 1874, the composer expanded and reworked the piece into a tone poem, replacing the vocal line with a solo violin part. It was premiered in January 1875.
The harp plays a single note twelve times (twelve strokes of midnight), accompanied softly by the strings. The solo violin enters playing the tritone, known as the diabolus in musica in music history. Two themes are passed through the various sections of the orchestra. The music peaks and there is a quote of the Dies irae, a chant from the Requiem Mass for the Dead. The xylophone is featured prominently representing the rattling of skeleton bones. There is an abrupt break in the texture as the dawn breaks with a rooster crow played by the oboe while the skeletons return to their graves.
Danse macabre has been used in movies, in television, as incidental music for plays, and for choreography in a range of productions from figure skating programs to drum corps marching shows. It also has been arranged by such historical figures as Franz Liszt and Vladimir Horowitz, and recorded many times for different combinations of instruments.
(born January 3, 1950)
William Popp earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver and his doctoral degree in composition from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. His composition teachers include Normand Lockwood, David Diamond and Helmut Braunlich. He was a member of the United States Air Force Band in Washington, DC, for 20 years. As accordionist and harpsichordist, he performed extensively with the USAF Strings throughout the United States, Europe and Asia, and as a soloist in Beijing, China. Popp’s works have received awards from Composers, Inc., National Federation of Music Clubs, New York Virtuoso Singers, The American Prize and the Delius Music Festival, and they been performed throughout the United States and Europe. About The Galleries, the composer writes “For this composition I chose four paintings I have seen in museums around the world. All are masterpieces and each one is from a different gallery.
Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) by Edouard Manet (1832-1883); The National Gallery, London. The scene depicts a crowd of wealthy Parisians, artists, and intellectuals at the gardens near the Louvre enjoying an outdoor concert. Interestingly, the musicians are not in view. The festive nature of the event is depicted in the music.
The Fable (1580) by El Greco (1541-1614); The Prado, Madrid. In Medicine, volume 32 of his scientific encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (77-79 AD), Pliny the Elder discusses the harmful effect that high living may unexpectedly have on morality. The painting is dark in appearance and spirit as a boy grapples with morality, specifically lust, vice, and folly. The music reflects this.
Girl with a Hoop (1885) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919); National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The young girl in this painting has long brown hair and is wearing a light blue dress as she holds a hoop and a stick. The music suggests many different activities she engages in within a single day, from lively to contemplative.
Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Painted during the time van Gogh was a voluntary patient at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole mental asylum in France, the scene is a view looking through a window toward the Apilles mountains, similar to the field where he later shot himself. The music portrays the extreme contrast between his days of ecstasy and massive depression, concluding in a peaceful manner, calmly ascending.”
(April 1, 1873-March 28, 1943)
Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
Upon graduation from the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff achieved success writing piano pieces, songs and orchestral music, until a disastrous performance of his first symphony in 1897 put him into an emotional tailspin lasting several years. He recovered and arrived at a personal style that brought him widespread success, emphasizing broad, lyrical melodies, full-bodied, large-scale orchestration, and consistently melancholy and sentimental moods. Isle of the Dead was inspired by a black and white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name. Rachmaninoff saw this artwork in Paris in 1907 and composed the music in early 1909. Apparently, he was more inspired by the black and white version of the painting than the original, which is interesting considering the range of orchestral colors he uses in this evocative symphonic poem. The composer conducted the premiere, but the piece went through numerous subsequent revisions.
The music begins quietly but relentlessly, suggesting the sounds of waves and oars in the water, presumably on the way to the Isle of the Dead. It continues to grow in volume and intensity, eventually arriving at the destination, a beautiful and somber place. Through the next section, the musical materials combine, reaching a climax that quotes the Dies Irae plainchant from the Requiem Mass. Next, the piece goes through a variety of moods somewhat freely, featuring peaks and valleys that showcase Rachmaninoff’s lush orchestration. In the final section, the opening music returns, as if the traveler is back on the boat, leaving the island. The piece ends with a quiet final quotation of the Dies irae chant.
(October 22, 1811-July 31, 1886)
Hunnenschlacht (The Battle of the Huns), S.105
While his piano works are deservedly lauded for their technical achievement and expressive range, Liszt’s orchestral works were equally progressive and influential. His most important orchestral contribution was the sinfonische Dichtung, or symphonic poem, a musical representation of a literary or other non-musical subject. He composed twelve symphonic poems between 1848-1858; Hunnenschlacht was his eleventh. Liszt conducted the premiere himself in Weimar on December 29, 1857. Hunnenschlacht was inspired by a painting of the same name by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1805-1874), a German painter. It depicts the battle of the Catalaunian Fields in 451 AD. Hun armies led by Attila fought a savage battle against a Roman coalition led by General Flavius Aëtius and the Visigothic king Theodoric. According to legend, the battle was so ferocious that the souls of the dead warriors continued their fighting in the sky as they rose to Heaven.
The first section of the piece, marked Tempestuoso, includes Liszt’s instruction: “Conductors: the entire color should be kept very dark, and all instruments must sound like ghosts.” This section creates an atmosphere of foreboding and growing agitation before the battle breaks out. The fighting begins with fanfares and rhythmic figures, and these are gradually combined with a chorale melody in long notes, an ancient chant melody Crux fidelis (Faithful Cross). The battle rages, eventually arriving at a majestic, triumphal fanfare alternated with soft chorale passages for organ, emphasizing the excitement and humility of victory in war. An extended version of the chorale is presented in the strings and winds, giving way to a triumphant final section combining battle fanfares with the chorale tune to celebrate the victory in full voice.