- Selections from Don Giovanni for Two Oboes, Two Clarinets, Two Bassoons, and Two Horns (1787)
Ah chi mi dice mai (No. 2)
Madamina, il catalogo é questo (No. 3)
Fin, ch'han dal vino (No. 8)
Eh via buffone (No. 11)
Presto presto pria ch'ei venga (No. 10)
James Austin Smith, oboe • Stephen Taylor, oboe • Tommaso Lonquich, clarinet • Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet • Marc Goldberg, bassoon • Peter Kolkay, bassoon • David Jolley, horn • Eric Reed, horn
- Octet for Flute, Oboe, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, and Piano, Op. 3 (1855-56)
Ransom Wilson, flute • James Austin Smith, oboe • David Jolley, horn • Sean Lee, violin • Mark Holloway, viola • Inbal Segev, cello • Xavier Foley, double bass • Michael Brown, piano
— INTERMISSION (Q&A with the artists) —
- Summer Music for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn, Op. 31 (1955)
Tara Helen O'Connor, flute • Stephen Taylor, oboe • Sebastian Manz, clarinet • Peter Kolkay, bassoon • Radovan Vlatković, horn
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Salzburg, 1756 – Vienna, 1791)
Mozart’s Don Giovanni recounts the legendary undoing of an unrelentingly selfish male. The opera opens with Don Giovanni’s attempted assault of Donna Anna and his subsequent murder of her father. The high stakes of the opening drama are captured by the tense and funereal minor-key music that appears at the start of the Overture. But the scampering tutti that follows is all sunshine. Indeed, most of the opera is occupied by the Don’s buffoonish attempts at seduction, and the music is full of impish levity. Josef Triebensee’s wind ensemble arrangements of selections from the opera capitalize on this lightness, creating a playful and yet faithful rendition of these familiar numbers. After the Overture, several arias and ensemble sections are included:
Ah chi mi dice mai: Donna Elvira, whom Don Giovanni has previously seduced and then abandoned, plots her revenge.
Madamina, il catalogo é questo: Leporello, the Don’s manservant and enabler, brags to Donna Elvira of all the women that the Don has seduced. He encourages her sincerely to give up on her love for him.
Fin ch’han dal vino: Don Giovanni tells Leporello to invite all of the townspeople to his house for a party in order to continue his lecherous pursuits.
Eh via buffone: Leporello threatens to leave Don Giovanni’s service, but the Don offers him more and more money until he agrees to stay.
Presto presto pria ch’ei venga: In the Finale to Act I, Masetto, the betrothed of young Zerlina, the target of Don Giovanni’s advances, plots to hide and watch the Don’s attempted seduction. Don Giovanni stumbles on Masetto and gives up his attempt for a couple of minutes, leading both Masetto and Zerlina back to the party. There, the Don once again reveals himself to be a villain, but manages to escape punishment for the moment.
Mily Balakirev (Nizhniy Novgorod, 1837 – St. Petersburg, 1910)
Mily Balakirev was a stubborn and dedicated advocate for Russian music. Together with fellow countrymen Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, and Modest Mussorgsky, he formed a collective of composers known as “The Mighty Five.” Sometimes scoffed at as a band of amateurs, they disdained the national conservatory’s overly European musical ethos, instead seeking to cultivate a Russian sound rooted in the distinct melodic and harmonic stylings of Russian folk music. Though the others went on to have varying degrees of international notoriety, Balakirev’s musical career took a serious hit in the 1870s, when he suffered major professional setbacks as a composer and conductor that led to a mental breakdown. He did resume composing here and there eventually, but his output remained relatively small.
Among the reasons his music has received less attention than that of his colleagues is that he was extremely slow to finish his works. Such was the case with his Octet for Winds, Strings, and Piano, his only extant chamber work. The young Balakirev wrote the first movement between 1855 and 1856 and he proudly showed it to Mikhail Glinka, a mentor and a highly influential figure in Russian music. It is orchestral in its ambitions, pitting muscular string gestures against lyrical wind melodies in the dramatic, declamatory opening minutes. The piano goes on to introduce a secondary theme, an insistent, modally-inflected tune that hints at the Russian style Balakirev would encourage his cohort to develop. Alas, as with many of his works, the composer did not complete the remaining movements of the octet, and so we are left only to imagine the inventive ways he might have developed these themes and stylistic elements into the large-scale work he had planned.
Samuel Barber (West Chester, PA, 1910 – New York, 1981)
American composer Samuel Barber was catapulted to fame in 1938 by Toscanini’s broadcast of his iconic Adagio for Strings, but by then he had in fact already produced a rash of quite popular symphonic and piano works. He resisted turning to the experimental methods that were being taken up by many of his colleagues, and though some of his music has borrowings from jazz and popular styles, for the most part Barber was focused on expanding the harmonic language of European Romanticism. He was criticized as conservative by many of his contemporaries, but the enduring presence of his music on concert stages is a testament to the effective balance he struck between new and old modes of music making.
His Summer Music for wind quintet, written in 1955 and premiered in 1956 on a commission from the Houston Chamber Music Society, displays this balancing act. The piece is built on a tuneful refrain that Barber took from one of his own unfinished orchestral scores. As the melody develops, the density of the accompaniment ebbs and flows, alternating comfortably tonal phrases with sections that are harmonized more complexly. The whole ensemble then participates in a series of unison passages with short, stopped notes in tonally chaotic counterpoint that creates a strangely static feeling. The group returns to the initial refrain, and gradually the players add more and more new textures. After a climactic section where every instrument seems to be doing something unrelated to the others, they quickly unite and bring the work to an abrupt and unresolved close.
Crowdfunding c. 1956
The Chamber Music Society of Houston had a remarkably prescient approach to paying for Summer Music, the quintet they commissioned from Samuel Barber. They asked members of the audience to donate to pay the composer (though they did in fact guarantee up to $2,000). It turned out to be a huge hit with the crowd, who had apparently been very excited and motivated to attend by this commissioning process. They got their money’s worth—at the concert, the work was played twice, once before intermission and once after.
Up next on the program at that concert in March of 1956? Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds.
Francis Poulenc (Paris, 1899 – Paris, 1963)
Francis Poulenc received lessons as a pianist and demonstrated a high degree of skill from a young age but he avoided formal training as a composer, concerned that he would become enmeshed in the formal dogmas and preconceptions of a single influence. He accepted some lessons from Erik Satie, and a few others over the course of the 1920s, but he never studied in a conservatory. The result is a uniquely omnivorous musical voice: in his music we hear hints of the harmonic language of Debussy, the rhythmic complexity and changeable moods of Stravinsky, and the tongue-in-cheek attitude of Satie. Equally important among his influences were the popular songs and band music of the time and he took pride in the resulting “vulgarity” that can be heard in many of his works. Indeed, in 1935, Poulenc admitted “I need a certain musical vulgarity as a plant lives on compost.”
Trappings of the local music hall can be heard throughout Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds, written in 1932. The perky outer sections of the first movement alternate between harsh, winding chromaticism and delightfully campy band fare. These passages enclose a melancholy and affecting interlude, cued by a bassoon solo that leads the whole group into a sultry bar-room ballad. The second movement opens with a sensitive oboe solo, a testament to Poulenc’s capacities as a melodist, which quickly devolves into a marching romp and then returns to the romantic material heard at the outset. The last movement is a triumphant rondo with extremely virtuosic horn parts. But the merriment is short-lived; the movement ends with a carefully and brightly harmonized slow chorale, as the party seems to end, and the revelers slowly return to their abodes.
Poulenc was not particularly pleased with the version of this sextet that he completed and presented in 1932. He viewed it as a flawed work of light entertainment. Over the course of the 1930s, in part in response to the tragic death of one of his best friends, Poulenc became more interested in seriousness in music. He started to write sincere religious works that would mark a new phase in his career and scaled back some of the “vulgarity” he had been so pleased to present previously. In 1939, he reworked the sextet into a final version, attempting to do a better job of striking the careful balance between the playfully absurd and the emotionally rich music that we can hear in the work today.
Francis Poulenc: Morning Person?
In 1932, Nino Franck interviewed Poulenc at his studio in Montmartre, north of Paris, where he regularly participated in an artist retreat. He was at the time working away on the Sextet for Piano and Winds and Franck’s description gives a charming picture of the composer and his surroundings:
When the composer leaves for a few days, it’s in Montmartre you have to seek him out: here’s a broad, silent street, with no cars between the solid houses, climbing inexorably up to the Sacre-Coeur. In one of these houses is an immense, elegant studio; I wait there, at nine o’clock in the morning, for the composer to be woken. French windows lead out on to a charming small garden on the side of the hill: if you look up, the clock towers seem to become flesh, whiter than ever in the morning sun. Then Poulenc appears, enveloped in a morning coat the gives him a somewhat Balzacian air, his head heavy and long like Apollinaire’s, his gaze sleepy and ironical, his voice ingratiating. You ask him a question, he questions you in return: you insist, and he makes a devious reply, with a sort of cheerful casualness…
Cellist, writer, and researcher Nicky Swett is a PhD student in music at the University of Cambridge.
“I need a certain musical vulgarity as a plant lives on compost.”