Sunday, Oct 9, 2022 / 4:00 pm

Born 1822, Liege
Died 1890, Paris

Symphonic Variations

When César Franck died in 1890 at the age of 68, he was worshiped by his students and regarded as one of the great French composers at the end of the 19th century. Fame can be a delicate matter, however: Had Franck died six years earlier, we might never have heard of him. The works for which he is remembered today came from the great flowering of creativity that took place when he was in his 60s; from those final years of his life came the Symphony in D Minor, the Violin Sonata, and the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue for organ.

The Symphonic Variations are also part of that late burst of creative energy. Franck composed this music in 1885, and it was first performed May 1, 1886, at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris. Franck’s title can be misleading; Symphonic Variations seems to imply a set of variations for orchestra, but this work is scored for piano soloist and orchestra. Yet, is not a piano concerto. Instead, this is a variation-form movement in which the piano and orchestra share equally in the continuous evolution of ideas. One admiring critic called it “a flawless work and as near perfection as a human composer can hope to get in a work of this nature.”

But the Symphonic Variations should not be understood as a theme and set of variations, like Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn, and Franck’s music offers a complete rethinking of what variation-form might be. Basic to that form is a certain starting-and-stopping quality: The composer presents his theme, then offers a series of variations on that theme, and the music comes to a pause between each variation. The pieces does not have clearly defined variations but instead constitutes an organic form in which two themes evolve continuously across the music’s quarter-hour span. So integrated is Franck’s writing that different observers count different numbers of variations here, but the number of variations does not matter: This music is fluid and alive, and its themes are in a constant state of evolution.

Various observers have tried to make out traditional forms in Franck’s variations. Some claim to hear a miniature symphony, with an introduction, fast movement, slow movement and quick-paced finale. Others detect an extended sonata-form movement with exposition, development, recapitulation and coda.

Such uncertainty is actually a measure of Franck’s success. So ingenious are his variations, so subtle is their evolution, so convincing is the entire span of the work that we don’t need to understand it as one of those forms. Franck created a unique piece of music in which soloist and orchestra—and two quite different themes—fuse together to generate music that seems constantly to be in the process of creating itself.


Born 1877, Pressburg, Hungary
Died 1960, New York City

Variations on a Nursery Tune, op.25

Ernst von Dohnányi was not only one of the greatest pianists who ever lived, he was also a champion of Hungarian music and one of the primal forces in Hungarian musical life in the early decades of the twentieth century. He served as conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic from 1919 until 1944, was music director at the Hungarian radio, and was for many years director of the Budapest Academy of Music, where he taught piano and composition. He championed the music of Bartók, Kodály and other young Hungarian composers, and he gave international tours as a concert pianist. So great was his influence that Bartók noted that Dohnányi was essentially providing the musical life of the entire Hungarian nation during these years.

Dohnányi composed his Variations on a Nursery Song in 1913, and he was soloist when the Berlin Philharmonic gave the premiere on February 17, 1914. Dohnányi begins with a long and dramatic introduction, marked Maestoso (“Majestic”) and full of snarling dissonances. We expect that what follows will be equally portentous, but for his theme he chose one of the best-known children’s tunes on the planet, and one that Mozart had used for a set of variations in 1781 under its French title “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman.” This song goes under a variety of titles in English (no point in spoiling the fun by naming it here–its identity will be obvious instantly). Dohnányi then takes this innocent little melody through 11 variations, some of them in specific forms and some meant to recall the music of other composers: No. 5 is a waltz, No. 7 is a sturdy march reminiscent of Mahler, and No. 9 evokes Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

As we near the end, the variations grow more powerful. No. 10, Passacaglia, is almost expressionistic in its intensity, No. 11 is a Choral scored largely for brass, and the Variations conclude with a finale in the form of an energetic fugato that brings back the nursery tune in all its innocent freshness before the powerful rush to the close.

In classical music, we rarely encounter a piece of music written just for fun. Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Song is many things: an imaginative set of variations on an unexpected tune, a brilliant and demanding work for piano soloist, and a powerful work for orchestra. It’s also a lot of fun.


Born 1845, Pamiers
Died 1924, Paris

Pelléas et Mélisande, op.80: Suite

III. Sicilienne 

Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande was first produced in Paris on May 17, 1893, and it quickly took the world by storm. A grim medieval romance with Arthurian overtones, the opera tells the story of Mélisande, who is found wandering in the forest by Golaud, a prince on a royal hunt. He takes her back to his castle and eventually marries her, but Golaud’s brother Pelléas is strongly attracted to Mélisande as well. Golaud becomes suspicious, and although Pelléas and Mélisande have decided to see each other no more, Golaud kills Pelléas, and Mélisande dies after giving birth to a child.

It is difficult to convey how powerfully this tale–full of doomed love and an evocation of a misty and more romantic past–influenced the younger generation at the turn of the century, particularly the younger generation of composers. Debussy saw the play in 1893 and immediately began work on an opera, which he finished in 1902. Schoenberg composed a symphonic poem with the same title in 1902-3, and Sibelius wrote a suite of incidental music for a production of the play in Helsinki in 1905.  Fauré was ahead of all these distinguished contemporaries: He was asked to compose incidental music for the play’s London premiere in 1898. Working quickly (he re-used some music he had written earlier and enlisted his student Charles Koechlin to help with the orchestration), Fauré composed 17 short movements.

From his incidental music, Fauré later drew an orchestral suite of four movements, this time orchestrating all the music himself. The suite is marked by unusual restraint. There are no dramatic outbursts, no explosions of orchestral sound, no precise depictions of action. Instead, Fauré’s music projects a mood of somber and poised beauty, a subdued atmosphere equivalent to the emotional events of Maeterlinck’s play. The third movement, Sicilienne, has become one of Fauré’s most popular works, especially in its arrangements for flute and for cello. A sicilienne is a dance in swaying rhythm, usually in a minor key; its name suggests the place of its origin.


Born 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
Died 1971, New York City

The Firebird: Suite

In 1909, following a successful visit of the Ballets Russes to Paris, the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev and his choreographer Michel Fokine made plans for a new ballet to be presented in Paris the following season, based on the old Russian legend of The Firebird. They first asked Anatoly Lyadov to compose the music, but when it became clear that the notoriously lazy Lyadov would never get around to it, they decided to take a chance on a young composer who had orchestrated some pieces for the Ballets Russes the year before. His name was Igor Stravinsky, and he was virtually unknown.

Stravinsky set to work in November 1909 at a dacha owned by the Rimsky-Korsakov family—to which he had gone, as he said, “for a vacation in birch forests and snow-fresh air”—and finished the piano score in St. Petersburg in March; the orchestration was completed a month later. The first performance took place in Paris on June 25, 1910, eight days after the composer’s 28th birthday, and it was a huge success. Although Stravinsky would go on to write very different music over the remainder of his long career, the music from The Firebird remains his most popular creation.

The Firebird tells of a young prince, Ivan Tsarevich, who unknowingly pursues the magic Firebird (part woman, part bird) into the garden of the green-taloned Kastchei, the most horrible of all ogres: Kastchei captures and imprisons maidens in the castle and turns all knights who come to rescue them to stone. Ivan captures the Firebird, but she begs to be released, and when he agrees, she gives him a magic feather. The prince sees a group of 13 princesses playing with golden apples, and when dawn breaks and they have to return to Kastchei’s castle, he follows them. He is confronted by the fiends and is about to be turned to stone when he waves the feather, and the Firebird returns to save the day.

Stravinsky drew three orchestral suites from his complete score to The Firebird. The first, in 1911, uses the original orchestration but eliminates the pantomimes that connect the scenes and (strangely) ends with the dance of Kastchei’s fiends as they try to resist the Firebird’s spell. For the second suite, composed in 1919, Stravinsky greatly reduced and simplified the opulent orchestration of the original ballet, took out some of the earlier sections, and added the Berceuse and the Finale. The version performed at this concert has become by far the most popular of the three; the final suite, assembled in 1945, reintroduces the pantomimes.

The ominous Introduction, in the unusual key of A-flat minor, hints at the music that will be associated with the monsters; Stravinsky tried to portray the ballet’s “magic” characters in music built on slight dissonances, reserving more consonant music for the human characters. Near the end of this section comes one of Stravinsky’s most striking orchestral effects, a series of rippling string arpeggios played entirely in harmonics. The composer said that he wanted to create the effect of a Catherine wheel (a firework that rotates when lit). The music proceeds without pause into the shimmering, whirling Variation of the Firebird, Stravinsky’s own favorite music from this score.

One of the intentions of Diaghilev and Fokine had been to make The Firebird as “Russian” as possible, and in The Princesses’ Khorovod (Round Dance), Stravinsky uses the old Russian folk tune “In the Garden.” The Khorovod comes to a peaceful close, but this mood is shattered at the beginning of the Infernal Dance of Kastchei’s Subjects by one of the most violent orchestral attacks ever written. Sharply syncopated rhythms and the barbaric snorts and growls of the low brass depict the fiends’ efforts to resist the Firebird’s spell.

Solo bassoon then sings the gentle (almost lugubrious) Berceuse, the music with which the Firebird lulls Kastchei and his followers to sleep, and this leads through a magical passage for tremolo strings into the Finale. The solo French horn sings the main theme, based on another Russian folk song, “By the Gate.” Beginning quietly, this tune repeats, growing in strength each time, and The Firebird drives to a magnificent conclusion on music of general rejoicing.

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger