Album Release - Grand Rapids Symphony | Strauss & Villa-Lobos
“The idea behind the program was to celebrate my Brazilian and German heritages, allowing the listener to experience the orchestra performing these two very contrasting styles. All the pieces were recorded during live performances from different concerts. I hope you enjoy listening to it!”
- Marcelo Lehninger, Conductor
Richard Strauss is famously supposed to have said that he could set a glass of beer to music. After succeeding at depicting much loftier subjects in his great symphonic tone poems such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Cervantes’ comic character Don Quixote, the mythic over-sexed lover Don Juan, the philosophy of Nietzsche in Also Sprach Zarathustra, and even Death and Transfiguration, what was left? Only the most difficult musical subject – himself! As he told the French writer Romain Rolland, “I do not see why I should not compose a symphony about myself; I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander.”
Strauss frequently provided a written description of what his tone poems were about. For Ein Heldenleben, it was “not a single poetical or historical figure, but rather a more general and free ideal of great and manly heroism (...) which describes the inward battle of life, and which aspires through effort and renunciation towards the elevation of the soul.”
He marked six separate sections in the score with subject headings. The first is “The Hero”—Strauss’s self portrait. The theme is a grand sweep, full of flash and dash, and, of course, nobility. After a brief pause, Strauss introduces us to “The Hero’s Adversaries,” a not very complimentary portrait of music critics. He actually calls for “hissing” cymbals and “snarling” oboes. The solo violin in the third section represents “The Hero’s Companion,” Strauss’s wife. He elaborated for Romain Rolland: “She is very complex, very much a woman, a little depraved, something of a flirt, never twice alike, every minute different to what she was the minute before . . .”
Next comes “The Hero at Battle” where the themes of the Hero and his wife are set against militaristic trumpets and drums. In “The Hero’s Works of Peace” Strauss quotes himself with themes from his earlier tone poems.The final section is “The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Completion.” Finally, amidst all the turmoil of the hero’s life there is a peaceful ending, intermingled with the theme of his beloved.
Referencing Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Strauss joked: “I am composing a large-ish tone poem entitled Heldenleben, admittedly without a funeral march, but yet in E-flat, with lots of horns, which are always a yardstick of heroism.”
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 & Chôros No.10 “Rasga o Coração”
Without question Heitor Villa-Lobos was the most important Brazilian art-music composer of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, Villa-Lobos composed a series of works called Chôros. Derived from the Portuguese word for “weeping” or “cry,” chôros was the music that street-musicians played. Villa-Lobos’ chôros are not mere transcriptions of Brazilian street music, but rather a syntheses of Brazilian street, folk, and European “classical” music traditions. His Chôros No. 10 is perhaps the most significant work in the set (some commentators claim it is the most important orchestral work in his entire output). The piece begins in the jungle with the orchestra playing with savage intensity, complete with orchestrated bird-song. After this bacchanalia of sound, the orchestra begins a rhythmic ostinato and the chorus enters singing syllables that Villa-Lobos claimed were Incan. Next, the chorus intones a long melody, a quotation of a popular dance (Yara) by Anacleto de Medeiros. Finally, the words of the poet Catulo da Paixão Cearense come in: Rasga o Coração (rends the heart). The poet implores the listener to see a universe of pain in a single suffering heart.
Beginning with his return to Brazil in 1930, Villa-Lobos began writing a series of nine works that he called Bachianas Brasileiras. He described them as a “special kind of musical composition based on an intimate knowledge of the great works of J. S. Bach and also on the composer’s affinity with the harmonic, contrapuntal and melodic atmosphere of the folklore of the northeastern region of Brazil.”
Villa-Lobos wrote the first movement of his fifth Bachianas Brasileiras in 1938 for a soprano soloist accompanied by eight cellos. Perhaps the best known of all of his works, it begins with the singer and first cellist intoning a sensuous, wordless song over a typically “motoric” pizzicato rhythm that characterizes much of Bach’s music. A bittersweet and impassioned song with lyrics by Ruth Corrêa (describing the colors and atmosphere of an early evening moonrise) interrupts the movement. Then the wordless music returns, this time hummed by the singer. The much faster second movement, added by Villa-Lobos in 1945, uses lyrics by Manuel Bandeira. It is a nostalgic song about the birds of the Cariri Mountains. The rhythm here is more Brazilian than Bachian, ending with a flourish.
Program notes © 2021 John Varineau