Program Notes: Bach to America

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Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, “Dumbarton Oaks” (1938)
Igor Stravinsky
Born June 17, 1882 in Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: April 6, 1971 in New York City


Dumbarton Oaks is an elegant estate in the District of Columbia that belonged to Mr. & Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, wealthy patrons of the arts. On the occasion of their thirtieth wedding anniversary in 1938, they asked Stravinsky to write a chamber concerto. Under the terms of the commission, they also agreed to underwrite the costs of the first performance.

According to his biographer Eric Walter White, Stravinsky visited the Blisses at Dumbarton Oaks while he was planning the work. He was most impressed with the gardens, whose elegance and formal layout may have influenced the structure of the music; the Bliss estate obviously lent its name to the new piece. Stravinsky began work on the “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto in spring 1937 in Switzerland; the score is dated March 1938, Paris. Stravinsky had intended to conduct the premiere but was unable to travel to the United States for the occasion because he was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. The Blisses were able to secure Nadia Boulanger as conductor for the first performance, which took place on 8 May, 1938.

Stravinsky frankly acknowledged his indebtedness to Bach in “Dumbarton Oaks;” indeed, there are quotations from the Third and Sixth Brandenburg Concertos. As in a Baroque concerto, each of the nine parts takes a solo role at some point, and the two outer movements have imaginative polyphonic textures that resolve into fugue or at least fugato. Bach’s unmistakable linear legacy bears a unique Stravinskyan stamp, however, that is most evident in the slow movement, with its spare texture framed by transitional chordal passages. The brilliant aural colors of the ensemble bring the concerto vividly to life.

The score calls for fifteen players: flute, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, three violins, three violas, two cellos and two double basses.


Variaciones Concertantes (1953)
Alberto Ginastera
Born: April 11, 1916 in Buenos Aires
Died: June 25, 1983 in Geneva, Switzerland


Two decades into the twenty-first century, Alberto Ginastera’s reputation continues to grow.  Unquestionably the greatest exponent of Argentinian music in the last century, Ginastera attracts an increasingly broad and more receptive audience, drawn by sheer melodic beauty and intense rhythmic drive in his music.  His was a constantly evolving style. Some of his proponents allege that his real achievement as a composer did not commence until the mature operas of the 1960s and 1970s: Don Rodrigo (1964), Bomarzo (1967), and Beatrix Cenci (1971).  But fans of Ginastera’s compelling instrumental music are quick to defend his splendid solo concertos, as well as the powerful and evocative Pampeanas series, inspired by the expansive South American prairie. 

Ginastera once said of his Pastoral Symphony, the Pampeana No. 3 (1954):

Every time I have gone across the [Argentine] Pampa or when I spent a season there, my mind was invaded by different and changing impressions, gay or melancholic, full of euphoria or calm, produced probably by its unlimited immensity and by the transforming aspects of the country during the course of the day.

His words are startlingly apt for the Variaciones Concertantes, composed just one year earlier, in 1953, for the Asociación Amigos de la Música of Buenos Aires.  

Broadly speaking, Ginastera’s music from his early years is dependent upon the piano and characterized by rhythmic brilliance. His later works turned to a more introspective lyricism, exploring different ensembles and musical textures. The Variaciones Concertantes falls into a middle period that the composer characterized as “subjective nationalism,” encompassing most of his works written between 1948 and 1954. Rather than quoting literally from Argentinian folk themes in these pieces, Ginastera evokes the atmosphere of his colorful homeland.

Variaciones Concertantes consists of twelve sections:  a theme, two instrumental interludes (one for strings right after the theme, the other for woodwinds near the end of the work) and nine additional variations, each highlighting a different member of the orchestra.  Twice Ginastera writes duet variations:  the Variazione canonica [canonic, or imitative, variation] for oboe and bassoon, and Variazione ritmica [rhythmic variation] for trumpet and trombone; the latter also features a prominent role for timpani, lending a powerful rhythmic profile and military air to that section.   

Part of the work’s persuasive appeal springs from Ginastera’s skill at varying sound color while he controls his momentum. Listening to Variaciones, one has a kaleidoscopic perception of the orchestra. The understated sound of the harp, imitating an Argentine guitar tuning its strings, constitutes the opening measures of Variaciones. Solo cello introduces the mournful theme, yet when Ginastera presents a reprise of his Tema before the concluding Rondo, he awards the melody to double bass. His sense of balance between lyrical and dramatic moments is flawless. The shimmering heat and stillness of the endless Argentine pampa alternates successfully with the unbridled violence of gale winds blowing in a storm. As the work progresses, we hear broader hints of nature’s power superseding the limpid tranquillity of the theme. Ginastera unleashes the full power of the orchestra in the concluding Rondo, building to a thrilling climax that fairly crackles with electricity.

The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, harp and strings. 


Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Johann Sebastian Bach
Born: March 21, 1685 in Eisenach, Germany
Died: July 28, 1750 in Leipzig


The town of Cöthen is approximately 60 miles north of Weimar and west of Leipzig. During the early 18th century, it was the political center of the wealthy house of Anhalt-Cöthen (pronounced AHN-halt KUR-ten). Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (1694-1728) was a great music lover who played viola da gamba, violin, and harpsichord; he also sang bass. Upon reaching his maturity in 1715, he set about building up his court orchestra. When Johann Sebastian Bach joined Leopold’s musical staff as Kapellmeister in late 1717, the young prince employed 18 musicians. That may sound modest to us, but Cöthen’s orchestra was then one of the largest and finest in northern Europe.

Early in 1719, the prince sent Bach to Berlin, probably to negotiate the purchase of a new harpsichord. Scholars believe that Bach encountered Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg on that journey. The Margrave, uncle to the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I, evidently collected concertos, for there were nearly 200 in his private library at his death. After hearing Bach play, he asked him to compose some concertos.

At this early stage in his career, Bach was known primarily as a performer. He had, thus far, composed almost exclusively for solo instruments and for small ensembles. The six concertos he sent to Christian Ludwig in 1721 may have been his first orchestral works.

Having little prior experience writing such compositions as the Margrave requested, Bach wrote for his court orchestra at Cöthen. Unfortunately, the Margrave’s instrumental resources were more modest than those of Prince Leopold. Although Christian Ludwig earned himself a measure of immortality through Bach’s dedication, he never had the works performed in his own court.

The letters “BWV” stand for Bach Werke Verzeichnis, or “Catalogue of Bach’s Works,” by Wolfgang Schmieder (1901-1990), a German music librarian who first undertook an exhaustive bibliographical study of Bach’s compositions and compiled a comprehensive thematic catalogue identifying every known work. Each of the Brandenburg Concertos has a different BWV number. Sometimes these numbers are referred to as a “Schmieder listing,” after the catalogue’s author.

The First Brandenburg boasts the most lavish scoring in the set, calling for two horns, three oboes, bassoon, three violins, viola, cello, and basso continuo. One of the violins is designated violino piccolo, a smaller Baroque instrument that was usually tuned a fourth higher than the full size violin; Bach wrote for it tuned a minor third higher. Most modern performances use a full-size violin for this solo part.

Musical scholars believe that the First Concerto is one of the earlier Brandenburgs, possibly reworked from an earlier composition that did not feature any solo groups. Bach may have been taking a bow to the Margrave of Brandenburg by including the salutary horns in a ceremonial, fanfare-like opening movement. On the other hand, it is clear that he did not think of the Margrave as having exclusive proprietary rights over the music of the six concerti, for he re-used various movements in other guises in later compositions. For example, the opening Allegro of BWV 1046 was metamorphosed into the first movement of his Cantata No.52, “Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht” of 1726, and the concerto’s third movement and second trio resurfaced with altered scoring in the secular Cantata No.207, “Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten”, also 1726.

Neither concerto grosso nor suite, the First Brandenburg falls somewhere between the two in its structure. The principal feature distinguishing it in form is its extended last movement. Added to the fast-slow-fast conventional concerto arrangement is a Minuet with three contrasting trio sections, each with different scoring. The first Trio reduces the full ensemble to two oboes plus bassoon, providing the only time in the concerto where the bassoon does not function as a continuo instrument. Next, after the repeat of the Minuet, comes a Polonaise for the supporting strings: two violins, viola, and bass. Bach’s second Trio takes metric license, switching to duple time for a perky miniature scored for the two horns plus oboes in unison.

Because the Minuet is repeated after each Trio, the movement becomes a lengthy sectional structure with a refrain. While the first oboe is a designated solo part, the three oboes tend to function together as a triadic family. Similarly, the strings sound as a responsive group except when the solo violin is playing.


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2021 

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