Program Notes: Rhapsody in Blue & Rachmaninoff 

Program Notes

Program Notes: Rhapsody in Blue & Rachmaninoff 

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40: 

World Premiere March 18, 1927; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (24 minutes) 

  • Sergei Rachmaninoff was a major figure in post-romanticism.
  • A brilliant pianist, he also wrote splendidly for orchestra.
  • His music features lush themes and heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality.
  • He eventually settled in the U.S., enjoying great success in this country.

Rachmaninoff’s First and Third Concertos, both popular audience pleasers, have also earned a place in classical repertoire, as has the beloved Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Rachmaninoff had a mixed relationship with his Fourth Piano Concerto, twice retiring it then dusting it off for later use. Written in his youth, then polished in adulthood, the concerto is a curious and appealing mixture of his early and mature styles. He acknowledged that his theme in the slow movement was indebted to the theme of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, but the balance is pure Rachmaninoff. More subtle than the other concertos, the Fourth abounds with innovative harmonies and the rich textures of a composer who thoroughly understood the interaction of piano and orchestra.

Jessie Montgomery’s Strum:

World Premiere April 2006; Ann Arbor, Michigan (8 minutes)

  • Jessie Montgomery was Musical America’s 2023 Composer of the Year.
  • She grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1980s.
  • Her father was a musician, and her mother was an actress and storyteller.
  • Montgomery studied violin at Third Street Music School Settlement, an old and storied school.
  • She has a long association with the Sphinx Organization, a social justice organization whose mission is to “transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts,” which currently partners with the Jacksonville Symphony to bring new musicians to the Jacoby Symphony Hall stage.
  • An accomplished violinist and respected educator, Montgomery is building a reputation as a major voice in American music.

At 42, Montgomery has rocketed to the top of the most-frequently-performed list, writing powerful and accessible music for chamber ensemble, chorus, solo instruments and orchestra. Montgomery’s title Strum refers to members of the guitar family. Originally conceived for string quartet, her piece celebrates American folk idioms. She weaves both traditional and popular elements into her musical tapestry. Listen for varied textures showing off the many timbres possible from string instruments. In some passages, all the players use their bows, including in chorale-like, rhythmic unison. However, Montgomery’s layered, pulsating rhythms are never far off. Diverse in textures and rhythmically complex, Strum is a joyous paean to string colors.  

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue:

World Premiere February 12, 1924; New York, New York (16 minutes) 

  • George Gershwin was a pioneer, fusing Broadway, jazz and classical styles.
  • Early in his career, he worked in Tin Pan Alley and then on Broadway.
  • Rhapsody in Blue was his first major composition.
  • His Porgy and Bess was a landmark in American opera and a cultural classic.

Premiered on February 12, 1924, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Gershwin’s great cultural masterpiece that has left an indelible impact on the history of American music. Although it does not have traditional formal discipline, the audience loved the piece when it was first premiered. Everyone, even the most disdainful critics, acknowledged the freshness of his musical ideas. Rhapsody in Blue positioned Gershwin as the great hope of American music. The composer himself gave the best description of Rhapsody in Blue: “I heard it as a musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” From the slinky clarinet trill and glissando at the start to the lavish romantic big tune to the frenetic finale, you’ll love every minute. The Rhapsodys two large sections are peppered with improvisatory solo piano cadenzas. Rhythmic ideas dominate the first half with non-traditional development. The E-major section with the Rhapsody‘s most famous melody is the emotional heart of the work that gives way to an exuberant and virtuosic close.  

Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, “The Inextinguishable:”

World Premiere February 1, 1916; Copenhagen, Denmark (36 minutes)  

  • Carl Nielsen is to Danish music what Edvard Grieg is to Norwegian music. He is his country’s most celebrated composer.
  • He worked for years as a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra.
  • Today, his concertos for violin, flute and clarinet are especially admired.
  • Leonard Bernstein’s advocacy contributed to a rediscovery of Nielsen’s music in the 1960s.

Nielsen was an important Scandinavian symphonist, completing seven symphonies as well as several overtures and symphonic poems. The subtitle he gave to his fourth symphony, “The Inextinguishable,” refers to the inherent will to live, a determination for happiness and fulfillment. Nielsen retained that optimism when he composed this symphony from 1914 to 1916, when most of Europe was at war. Denmark, like the other Scandinavian countries, remained neutral during World War I. “The Inextinguishable” will appeal to fans of Jean Sibelius, for there is a shared Nordic quality to his and Nielsen’s music, but Nielsen had his own voice. Although he and Sibelius were contemporaries, they did not influence each other. What you will hear in this powerful, affirming symphony is an astounding command of the orchestra, a startling emphasis on timpani (you will notice two sets of timpani on the stage. Nielsen envisioned them as “dueling” figures, especially in the finale), broad changes of mood and a unifying sense that derives from themes introduced at the start. These qualities change through the course of four movements, ultimately delivering a resoundingly positive and joyous message. 

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 

Sergei Rachmaninoff 

Born April 1, 1873, in Oneg, Novgorod District, Russia | Died March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California 

Rachmaninoff himself always treasured this work, nurturing it for a long time. Despite his personal affection, the Fourth Concerto struggled to work its way into the public’s affections. Begun in 1914, he settled in the United States in 1919, and his performing concert career took priority over composition for a number of years. During the summer of 1925, he returned to the sketches for this concerto, looking for a new virtuoso piece to present to his American audiences. 

Partly because it was so long in the first complete version, the Fourth Concerto was poorly received. Rachmaninoff was aware of the problem, writing to his friend, the composer Nikolai Medtner: 

“I glanced at its size, 110 pages, and I was terrified. Out of sheer cowardice, I haven’t yet checked its time.” 

 The critics did check and castigated Rachmaninoff accordingly. He made extensive cuts from the first movement and the finale prior to publishing it as Op. 40 in 1928. After another unsuccessful performance, he withdrew the work in 1929, and it was laid aside for 11 years. 

With further revisions in 1941, Rachmaninoff finally came to grips with problems in the piece, tightening it up so that it was shorter than the popular Third Concerto. When we listen with fresh ears, we must be puzzled by its failure to attract audiences during the composer’s lifetime. More subtle than the other concertos, it abounds with innovative harmonies and the rich textures of a composer who thoroughly understands the interaction of piano and orchestra. 

Rachmaninoff’s slow movement is dominated by a theme whose indebtedness to the slow movement of Schumann’s concerto the composer readily acknowledged. He treats the simple, descending motive with rhapsodic assurance and subtle, persuasive harmony, achieving a masterly dialogue between soloist and orchestra as fine as in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. Though certainly a virtuoso work, this concerto derives much of its appeal from its directness and closeness.  

Instrumentation: the score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, solo piano and strings. 


Jessie Montgomery 

Born December 8, 1981, in New York City 

As its title suggests, Strum alludes to plucked strings, specifically those of the guitar family. Montgomery describes this piece as a celebration of American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement. In her seven-minute score, she evokes multiple styles, freely migrating between traditional techniques and popular elements. Her composer’s note states: 

“Strum is the culminating result of several versions of a string quintet I wrote in 2006. It was originally written for the Providence String Quartet and guests of Community MusicWorks Players, then arranged for string quartet in 2008 with several small revisions. In 2012, the piece underwent its final revisions with a rewrite of both the introduction and the ending for the Catalyst Quartet in a performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition.

Originally conceived for the formation of a cello quintet, the voicing is often spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound. Within Strum, I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.”

The movement opens with upper strings playing pizzicato. Cello introduces a mournful theme, presently joined by first violin. The mood shifts to a more upbeat tempo, introducing jazzy syncopations and flights of fancy. In some passages, all four players use their bows, including in chorale-like rhythmic unison. However, Montgomery’s layered, pulsating rhythms are never far off. Diverse in textures and rhythmically complex, Strum is a joyous paean to string colors.  

A violinist and educator as well as a composer, Montgomery grew up in a musical household on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her parents worked in music and theater and were active in neighborhood arts initiatives. Montgomery earned her undergraduate degree from the Juilliard School in violin performance and subsequently completed a master’s in film composition and multimedia at New York University. She is a Graduate Fellow in Music Composition at Princeton University. In May 2021, she began an appointment as the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 

Instrumentation: Strum is scored for string orchestra.  


Rhapsody in Blue 

George Gershwin 

Born September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York | Died July 11, 1937, in Beverly Hills, California 

If tomorrow’s newspaper were to announce a concert of American music, at which a committee of judges would decide what American music is, they would face a very lengthy evening, and the event would face skepticism, if not outright ridicule. Such a newspaper article actually ran in January 1924 in the New York Tribune, announcing that Irving Berlin, Victor Herbert and George Gershwin would introduce new compositions on the program. The paper reported: 

“George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem and Victor Herbert is working on an American Suite.” 

 It was news to Gershwin. He had planned a collaboration with jazz band leader Paul Whiteman, whom he had met in 1922, but the details had not yet been determined.  

The Original Jazz Concerto? 

Gershwin was 25, ambitious, talented and unschooled. Recognizing the commercial and professional potential of the American music event, he and Whiteman decided to make the new piece happen. They agreed on a free-form composition for Whiteman’s band featuring solo piano. Gershwin sketched the score in a two-piano version that initially bore the title “American Rhapsody.” By the time of the premiere on February 12, 1924, it had acquired its present title. In a matter of weeks, the piece was drafted. Only a few pre-existing ideas found their way into the Rhapsody, but one was seminal: the fabulous clarinet glissando that soars upward at the start. Setting the whole sultry tone of the work, it was already in Gershwin’s sketchbooks. 

Whiteman suggested that Ferde Grofé orchestrate the Rhapsody. Today, Grofé’s reputation rests primarily on his splendid and colorful Grand Canyon Suite (1931). In 1924, he was highly respected as a band composer and arranger, and he had already worked closely with Whiteman. Gershwin had no background in orchestration (although Victor Herbert agreed to teach him shortly after this Rhapsody was completed). Grofé’s accomplishment was masterly and contributed greatly to Rhapsody in Blue‘s success.  

The Long Arm of Influence: Gershwin’s American Classic 

The traditional assessment of Rhapsody in Blue pegs it as popular music plunked squarely into the traditional concert hall, thereby imparting an unaccustomed aura of legitimacy to an American composer. For the entire balance of his life, Gershwin craved acceptance from the world of art music. Those who object to the meandering structure of this piece overlook that a Rhapsody is, by definition, a free fantasy, often of epic character. On that level, Gershwin succeeds brilliantly. His incomparable piano writing retains its spontaneity and panache a century after he improvised so much of it on opening night.  

Instrumentation: Grofé’s original score was for Whiteman’s jazz band. Two years later, he rescored it for full orchestra, calling for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, drums, solo piano, three saxophones, banjo and strings. 

Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 The Inextinguishable 

Carl Nielsen 

Born June 9, 1865, in Nørre-Lyndelse, Denmark | Died October 3, 1931, in Copenhagen, Denmark 

Nielsen’s Subtitle  

Nielsen’s explanatory note in the published score reads:  

“By using the title ‘The Inextinguishable,’ the composer has tried to suggest by a single word what music alone has the power fully to express: the basic will to life. Music is life, and, like life, inextinguishable; so the title which the composer has given to his work may seem superfluous. He has employed it, however, in order to underline the strictly musical nature of his task. Not a ‘program’ but a finger-post pointing into the field of music itself.

This somewhat stilted language must have mystified some listeners, for Nielsen made a public statement following the symphony’s premiere in February 1916. His later statement clarifies the paragraph in the score. It amounts to a personal manifesto regarding the arts and music’s supreme position among the arts.  

“The title ‘Inextinguishable suggests something which only music itself can express fully: the elementary will of life. Only music can give an abstract expression of life, in contrast to the other arts which must construct models and symbolize. Music solves the problem only by remaining itself, for music is life whereas the other arts only depict life. Life is unquenchable and inextinguishable; yesterday, today and tomorrow, life was, is and will be in struggle, conflict, procreation and destruction; and everything returns. Music is life, and as such, inextinguishable.” 

As one might expect on the basis of such a declaration, the overriding message of the symphony is positive and affirming. Yet the journey has its perils and no shortage of drama. The opening measures plunge us into a roiling sea of turbulence and chaos. The die is cast, and we are in pursuit of survival first and, one hopes, stability and happiness.  

Nielsen cast his symphony in a conventional four movements. However, they are linked with connective musical tissue so that the work is played without pause. There is ample precedent for this approach, extending as far back as Felix Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony and Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. The sections are easy enough to delineate, in part because they correspond to traditional outlines. That is, the first movement approximates a sonata form with two contrasting themes that he develops at length. The second movement is an intermezzo, the third an eloquent slow movement and the finale a triumphant peroration.  

Nielsen the Modernist 

Nielsen’s contemporaries included Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. He was educated in the romantic tradition of the late 19th century. Through his work as conductor of Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre, Nielsen had extensive experience with staples of the operatic repertoire.  

Why then does this symphony feel so bold and so modern? Part of it is Nielsen’s harmonic language. He wrote tonal music, using key signatures throughout, yet he was unafraid of dissonance. His music has a raw emotional power that occasionally looks to Dmitri Shostakovich who was two generations his junior.  

If Nielsen’s sound resembles that of any of his contemporaries, it is Sibelius. Abstractly, one could cite a Nordic “coolness” to both their works, but there are more concrete similarities. Both men were aware of developments in new music specifically. Arnold Schoenberg’s increasing distance from traditional tonality and development of the 12-tone system chose to continue working in an expanded tonal framework. Sibelius and Nielsen shared a gift for using woodwind and brass effectively and liked to pair winds in parallel thirds for their melodies.  

In the case of “The Inextinguishable,” Nielsen places a highly individual stamp on his music. The timpani emerge in the opening measures as a major factor, tuned not in the traditional first and fifth degrees of the scale but in tritones. This dissonant interval, known as diabolus in musica in medieval theory, is an immediate attention grabber and hints at the bold role the kettledrums play throughout the Fourth Symphony.  

Another noteworthy factor is Nielsen’s sudden mood swings, almost turning on a dime. The changes involve dynamics, instrumentation, tempo and tonality. These abrupt switches can be dizzying and present challenges of pacing and momentum for the conductor. Nielsen used the term “organic” about music that evolves as the compositional process unfolds, as opposed to blocking and sketching ideas and conforming to traditional ideas of musical architecture. 

Timpani in the Forefront 

No, you’re not seeing double. There are two sets of timpani on stage for Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable,” and he gives them plenty to do. That makes this Danish masterpiece a special work for timpanists.  

While the use of two timpanists in a large-scale symphonic work is not uncommon, in this case they are “dueling” with each other because Nielsen uses the timpani to depict a battle scene. His writing presents challenges in timing and the coordination of interlocking rhythms. The dangers are exacerbated because the composer specified that the two sets of timpani should be placed far apart, rather than adjacent. In some acoustical environments, that can make hearing each other difficult for the two players. The benefit of adjacent placement is tighter ensemble and coordination between the two timpanists and the conductor.  

Nielsen took advantage of the timpani’s ability to use pedals for changing pitches rapidly. Approximately 15 minutes into the work, the principal timpanist has an extended passage using this technique. He also favors the occasional use of glissando (sliding) pitch. The combination of these factors gives the timpani an unexpectedly high profile in Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony. 

About the Music  

Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony begins with a big, brash theme for full orchestra: vigorous, fortissimo with pounding timpani and driving rhythms. Its anxiety and surging agitation make a striking impression, but that is not necessarily the music you will remember. 

Approximately one minute into the movement, he introduces a second theme in parallel thirds. “I also have a second theme for the first movement; it goes in parallel thirds for quite a while,” he wrote to a friend. “It isn’t really like me, but it came out like that.” 

It “comes out like that” again and again, passed around from the initial statement by two clarinets, to violins and then full orchestra, followed by a canonic variation in the brasses, switched briefly to minor mode, then another restatement by full orchestra. Each time, he changes something slightly but not so much that the theme does not register in our aural memory. Soon, he integrates the muscular music of the opening with this memorable second theme. They will both recur, but the second theme in particular has great importance for the finale. Despite Nielsen’s inconsequential description in letters, that theme in effect becomes a cornerstone for the rest of the symphony.  

Nielsen once described his slow movement as “like the eagle riding on the wind.” It unfolds as a woodwind serenade. The strings’ contribution is minimal. As Robert Simpson has written, “the evolution of life is not a wholly turbulent process, and its quieter side is reflected here.” This music calls to mind the lyric intermezzi of Johannes Brahms’ symphonies, gentle movements that stand in as more serene replacements for a scherzo.  

A Conversation Between Violins and Timpani 

Nielsen’s Poco adagio quasi andante opens as an impassioned dialogue between the violins and timpani. Lower strings begin with pizzicato accompaniment, presently offering a sustained countermelody to the violin theme. More than anywhere else in the “Inextinguishable,” this opening foreshadows the stark textures and bleak atmosphere of Shostakovich’s slow movements. A tender interlude for first strings eases the tension momentarily before Nielsen starts the gradual procession of this movement toward its conclusion. His texture is not exactly fugal, though there is some overlapping material among sections. We have a sense that woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion are each doing their own thing, then as if by magic, they fuse their efforts.  

The transition to the finale is a whirlwind of sixteenth notes in the strings that recalls the dizzying transitional passage in Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. It leads to a vibrant movement in brisk triple meter with one beat per measure. Nielsen thus recaptures much of the hurtling energy of the symphony’s opening. The dynamic force underpinning the finale’s energy reaches an early conclusion in the “dueling timpani.” He acknowledged that their battle was war-related; they engage in several violent skirmishes before the turbulence resolves.  

The much-maneuvered second theme from the opening movement becomes a hymn of triumph for Nielsen’s close. Obliterating the stress and anxiety, the orchestra prevails in radiant E major to conclude the symphony. The power of Nielsen’s music does, indeed, seem inextinguishable.  

Nielsen was an excellent contrapuntalist. His command of imitative writing comes through clearly in the finale in a series of cameo solos for many of the orchestra’s wind principals. The constant of the triple meter pulse underscores the optimistic, outward aspect of this music. If the timpani remind us that the world was at war, the rest of the symphony’s forward momentum is a declaration that mankind’s struggle for survival will ultimately prevail.  

Instrumentation: the score calls for three flutes (first and third doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two sets of timpani and strings. 

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023