Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Composed in 1922
Pulcinella Suite is a one-act ballet based on the character Pulcinella from the Italian Commedia dell’arte (an early form of Italian theatre). Pulcinella is a notably an odd fellow with a humpback, large nose, and gangly legs, not to mention a round potbelly. Pulcinella is a two-sided character, we find him acting dumb although he is very aware of what is going on, or he acts superior and competent despite his ignorance. Above all, he is a schemer and he ultimately manages to sort out the problem at hand. As Commedia dell’arte was performed in different countries and regions the character eventually morphed into Mr. Punch of Punch and Judy fame in England.
The suite was derived in 1922 from the larger Pucinella one-act ballet with vocals which premiered in 1920 in Paris marking Stravinsky’s second phase as a composer. He said, “Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look of course, the first of many love affairs in that direction but it was a look in the mirror, too.”
Pulcinella takes us through a story of love and friendship. Pulcinella, his girlfriend Pimpinella and two other couples ride the waves of wooing, misunderstanding and ultimately, the winning back of true love and happy marriages for all.
The concert suite was written in 1922, featuring eight of the 21 original movements and no vocalists. The suite prominently features the principals of the string sections and was revised by Stravinsky twice in 1949 and 1965. The work is a common piece of repertoire for chamber orchestras.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor
Composed in 1868
We are all familiar with the pressure of a deadline. Saint-Saëns wrote Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, his second piano concerto, in only three weeks! Conductor Anton Rubinstein wanted to collaborate with Saint-Saëns but was in Paris for a very short time. Under this tight schedule, the piece was completed in just 17 days, which left little time to refine, practice, and prepare.
Unlike traditional form, the piece starts slow and builds in tempo as the movement progresses. The first movement features the pianist performing a long cadenza (improvisational solo moment, not unlike someone scatting in jazz), then the orchestra enters playing a theme from Saint-Saëns’ pupil Fauré. It repeats in a louder motif again giving the pianist a long cadenza. The second movement fills in where the first movement would have traditionally been penned as an up-tempo scherzo. This movement can be compared with a movement and drive like his composition of Carnival of the Animals.
The third movement picks up from the second movement in a very fast saltarella (a very quick Italian dance, usually faster than a tarantella). Both the orchestra and soloist move along a breakneck speed until they finally meld together in a whirlwind of sonorous splendor. Although not widely known for his piano playing, like colleagues Franz Liszt or Robert Schumann, it was Saint-Saëns piano playing which was the impetus of this composition was described by Hector Berlioz as “an absolutely shattering master pianist.”
Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 40 in G minor
Composed in 1788
One of only two extant minor key symphonies that Mozart ever composed, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor stands out as a truly unconventional and deeply moving composition – even for the truly unconventional Herr Mozart! Finished on July 25, 1778, it is one of Mozart’s most performed, recorded and admired works.
Mozart wrote three symphonies in the very productive summer of 1778 and Symphony No. 40 has come to stand out as a source of inspiration and great enjoyment to audiences and musicians ever since. Beethoven and Schubert looked to it for inspiration for their own masterpieces, and Johannes Brahms even purchased the autographed scores of both versions in the 1860s. Weaving waves of intensity, darkness, softness, and light, No. 40 is unquestionably one of Mozart’s most intense and emotional pieces. Historians have speculated that he was influenced by the recent Sturm and Drang (Storm and Stress) artistic movement in Europe, or perhaps by the loss of his infant daughter Therese.
It has been suggested that Mozart composed Symphony No. 40 as the central piece of an intended performance trio because it has no introduction, as Symphony No. 39 does, nor does it have a finale of the scale of Symphony No. 41. However, with no documentation as to performance dates or reviews, and with no reference to Symphony No. 40 ever appearing in printed material of any kind, it is all just juicy rumors! Some have even suggested that perhaps Mozart never heard it performed, which would truly be a tragedy.