Masterworks 3
Christopher Theofanidis b. 1967
Christopher Theofanidis
b. 1967
Christopher Theofanidis
Rainbow Body

Born in Dallas, TX and graduate of Yale, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Houston, Christopher Theofanidis has been the recipient of the Masterprize, the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Charles Ives Fellowship, among others. He is a former member of the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the Juilliard School in New York City, and currently teaches at Yale. For the 2006-07 season he was composer-of-the-year of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Theofanidis composed Rainbow Body in 2000, originally for string quartet and piano. It is based on a chant by the medieval mystic, herbalist, playwright, composer and theologian, Hildegard of Bingen. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed Hildegard a saint and a doctor of the Church

Theofanidis writes: “… as simple and direct as this music is, I am constantly amazed by its staying power. Hildegard's melodies have very memorable contours that set them apart from other chants of the period. They are very sensual and intimate, a kind of communication with the divine. This work is based on a section of one of her chants, "Ave Maria, 0 auctrix vite" (Hail Mary, source of life). Example 1

Rainbow Body begins in an understated, mysterious manner, calling attention to some of the key intervals and motives of the piece. Example 2 When the primary melody enters for the first time about a minute into the work, I present it very directly in the strings without accompaniment. In the orchestration, I try to capture a halo around this melody, creating a wet acoustic by emphasizing the lingering reverberations one might hear in an old cathedral. Example 3

“Although the piece is built essentially around fragments of the melody, I also return to the tune in its entirety several times throughout the work, as a kind of plateau of stability within an otherwise turbulent environment. Rainbow Body has a very different sensibility from the Hildegard chant, with a structure that is dramatic and developmental, but I hope that it conveys at least a little of my love for the beauty and grace of her work.”

The key words in Theofanidis’s description of his own work are “mystic,” turbulent,” “dramatic” and “developmental.” Rainbow Body suggests Hidegard’s chant set against passages of tension and conflict. The first dramatic interlude also introduces a five-note descending motive that sounds like British churchbells. Example 4 Over the course of the piece, the turbulent passages become increasingly threatening and even militaristic. Example 5 Fragments of the chant compete for ascendancy, sometimes disguised in less mystical garb, Example 6 gradually emerging triumphant in its complete form. Example 7 The entire work, therefore, is an arch – or a rainbow – anchored by Hildegard’s song.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488

During the period between 1782 and 1786, Mozart completed no fewer than twelve piano concerti, many of them exploring new structural and harmonic territory. The A major Concerto, one of his most popular, is not only a powerfully emotional work – especially the second movement – but is also of historical and biographical interest.  One of three he was to perform in Vienna during the Lenten season of 1786, it was finished in March and was among the first of his works to make use of clarinets.

Preliminary sketches for this work exist, demonstrating – contrary to legend – that Mozart wasn’t always composing on the fly. In fact, he kept notebooks containing musical ideas to be used at a later time, works in progress and even some brief sketches eventually abandoned altogether. About 320 fragments and sketches survived, although clearly many were discarded by Mozart himself and still more by his widow Constanze. Sketches for part of the first movement, an abandoned second movement in D major and the Finale, reveal that this work was already under way in 1784, two years before its completion. This evidence also demonstrates that Mozart sometimes devoted great care in revising and polishing his music.

This Concerto belongs to a group of five that Mozart dedicated to his early patron Prince Joseph Wenzeslaus von Fürstenberg.  In a letter to the Prince, Mozart reveals that these were works “for my own use and for a small group of music-loving friends...had never seen the light of day.”

The opening movement in the modified sonata form used for the classical concerto, comprises two lyrical principal themes Example 1 & Example 2 – rather than the usual contrasting themes – separated by a more energetic bridge, Example 3 plus a syncopated closing theme. Example 4 The bulk of the movement involves the interplay of brief fragments of the themes presented during the exposition. The fairly simple cadenza is the only surviving solo cadenza Mozart wrote into a score. Usually, he either wrote cadenzas out separately or improvised them in performance. Generations of composers and pianists have taken advantage of the creative freedom allowed in the cadenza to supply their own.

The Adagio is the only piece Mozart ever composed in f-sharp minor, and that in a concerto in a major key.  While the mood is extremely intense, the orchestration is quite light; and it is probable that the piano part was originally embellished with improvised ornamentation. The piano opens the movement with a long melody Example 5 that is answered by the orchestra in a new theme that becomes the focus of the movement. Example 6 Those interested in the nature of such improvised embellishments should consult Mozart's earlier Concerto No. 9 “Jeunehomme,” K.271, in which he wrote out elaborate ornamentation for the piano in the second movement. The embellishments already written into the Concerto No. 23 clearly indicate that Mozart was not interested in merely musical decorating, but rather in using ornamentation to enhance the emotional tone of the piece.

The sprightly Finale, in a hybrid of rondo and sonata form, is a sharp contrast to the pathos of the preceding movement. It suggests a happy release from a dark night of the soul. This movement simply gushes with thematic material, illustrating how the greatest composers did not feel constrained by slavish adherence to traditional musical forms. Whereas a formal rondo would involve a refrain alternating with a number of freely composed episodes, Mozart pays only casual attention to the formal constraints, interjecting the rondo theme only when it suits him.

Once again, the piano starts off, but in this movement, the orchestra and soloist tend to echo each rather than engaging in dialogue as in the Adagio. After the piano introduces the rondo theme, Example 7 the orchestra proceeds in a formal exposition with a set of themes not heard again until the end of the piece that includes a wicked bassoon part. Example 8 Clearly in this movement, the piano has its own musical ideas. Its many themes are short and to the point, although there is a fair amount of pianistic noodling as well. When the soloist enters after the conclusion of the orchestra's exposition, it is with new music, Example 9 a separate exposition, in fact, with its own secondary theme in the minor mode Example 10 and a closing theme. Example 11 Before it's all over, Mozart introduces new music in two further episodes. Example 12 & Example 13

Sergey Prokofiev 1891-1953
Sergey Prokofiev
Sergey Prokofiev
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100

Following the German invasion of Russia in 1941, prominent Soviet artists, including Sergey Prokofiev, were evacuated from Moscow. They were relocated first to the Caucasus and later, when that area became endangered, further east into Central Asia and Siberia. All these wanderings, however, did not hinder Prokofiev from accomplishing a prodigious amount of work: Music for the film Ivan the Terrible and four other films, the opera War and Peace, the Second String Quartet, the Seventh and Eighth Piano Sonatas, the ballet Cinderella, and the Flute Sonata.

With the turn in the fortunes of the war in the winter 1943-44, Prokofiev was able to return to Moscow and immediately set about composing his Symphony No.5, conducting the premiere in Moscow in January 1945. It was a time of national elation as the Soviet Union anticipated the impending victory over Nazi Germany. The composer considered the work a milestone: “I was returning to the symphonic form after a break of sixteen years. The Fifth Symphony is the culmination of an entire period in my work. I conceived it as a symphony on the greatness of the human soul.” Whether this comment represents his true intent or a statement for official consumption we will never know.

Mindful of the Soviet authorities, Prokofiev used in the Symphony the patriotic, “officially-sanctioned” language that he had used in the dramatic works of the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as Alexander Nevsky. His model was Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5, in which traditional symphonic structure, broad dramatic themes and conservative harmonies – the “Soviet reality” demanded by the authorities – still allowed for a strong personal expression.

Prokofiev conducted the premiere of the Symphony in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on January 13, 1945, in what turned out to be his last appearance as a conductor and one of the most dramatic premieres ever. Everybody who was anybody was in the audience. The event is best described in the words of pianist Sviatoslav Richter: “The Great Hall was illuminated, no doubt, as it always was, but when Prokofiev stood up, the light seemed to pour straight down on him from somewhere up above. He stood like a monument on a pedestal. And then, when Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silence reigned in the hall, artillery salvos suddenly thundered forth. His baton was raised. He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this – something symbolic.” The salvo was a tribute to the Red Army which that day crossed the Vistula in its march into Germany. A few days later Prokofiev suffered a fall and concussion never to regain his full health.

Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev’s stock declined in the West during the period of the Cold War, not so much with music directors and the public, but rather in the music academies, where strict atonality and the austere twelve-tone works of Schoenberg and his disciples reigned supreme. The issue was less one of political ideology than musical; the trend setting composers of the West regarded the tonal, melodic style of the Russians passé in the relentless onward progression of “serious” music.

The eminently singable themes of the Fifth Symphony have made it, along with the First, the most popular of Prokofiev’s instrumental works. It is one of the symphonic repertory’s most dazzlingly orchestrated works with wonderful solos, section solos and brilliant percussion writing. As befitted the occasion, the Symphony opens with a grand Andante movement with a sweeping main theme Example 1 introduced by a solo flute but gradually supported by the timpani and brass. True to convention, the most important secondary theme provides a more flowing, less majestic contrast. Example 2

The second movement provides a sharp contrast, a Scherzo marked Allegro marcato consisting of two main themes that are passed around the orchestra. Example 3 & Example 4 The Trio featuring the upper winds temporarily slows the pace, Example 5 but a new theme brings in more lively orchestral solos. Example 6 The transition back to the Scherzo begins slowly, gradually accelerating and building up momentum.

Like Mozart and his own colleague Shostakovich, Prokofiev was a master of the gut wrenching slow movement. But the Adagio of the Fifth Symphony is not an intimate expression; in its formality it is more funereal, perhaps recalling the millions of Russian fallen. It is in conventional ABA form, the first part a gentle, sinuous extended phrase over pianissimo triplets in the violins with cellos and basses bowed to sound like deep Russian cathedral bells. Example 7 The second section includes the first instance in this work of typically Russian folk-like themes and builds to a climax marked now more clearly with the sound of the tolling bells. Example 8 The return to the first theme is varied but recaptures the contemplative mood of the opening.

A quiet reprise, a variation on the opening of the Symphony serves as an introduction to the Finale, Example 9 an exultant celebration. Three principal themes are introduced in the upper winds, the clarinet for the first, Example 10 the oboe the second Example 11 and the flute for the third.Example 12 A fourth “Russian” theme, closely related to the middle section of the Adagio movement, belongs to the lower strings and becomes an important figure in the climatic conclusion of the Symphony. Example 13 While the first part of the movement is fairly subdued, it is clear that the composer had deliberately saved the biggest sound for last. The coda alone lasts a full two minutes, a buildup of tension using a gradual crescendo that adds more and more instruments, delayed harmonic resolution and an unexpected final pianissimo – all over an ostinato in the violins and upper winds – leading up to the final “big bang.” Example 14
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017