The Berkshire Symphony (2000)

This was written as an assignment for a music class while studying at Williams College in 2000

A concert featuring Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Overture; Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat Minor, Op. 23; and Ives’ Symphony No. 2

The Berkshire Symphony concert featured three very different works, all of which shared some common features, but which were very distinct from each other in character and style.

The Schubert “Rosamunde” Overture was the first piece on the program. It was very Romantic in temperament: full of rubato; showcasing a complex but clearly discernible melody, marked changes in speed and dynamics, and emotional, dissonant harmonies.

The Tchaikovsky piece, which followed the Overture in the first half, was considerably longer, as expected for a piece with two additional movements. It was a treat to listen to the piano soloist, Marilyn Neeley, who despite her compact size and apparent age, still managed to cleanly and tirelessly hammer out Tchaikovsky’s frenzied score until her hands were almost a blur over the keys of the piano. Everyone seemed very impressed with her, even giving her an uncustomary round of applause after the first movement, though it is also possible that the applause resulted from the audience believing the piece had finished, as it followed after shorter Schubert overture. The Concerto was typically Romantic in style, full of emotive dissonant harmonies, dramatic changes in dynamics and tempo, and intricate passages where the soloist could exhibit her mastery of the piano.

The Ives Symphony was the only piece in the second half. It, in contrast with the short Overture and the three-movement Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, was much longer and had five movements, though like with the Tchaikovsky, the movements were balanced in mood and tempo: fast, slow, fast, slow and fast. The first four movements featured similar stylistic traits. Many of the harmonies were dissonant or discordant and were pitted against melodies which were, by and large, tuneful and accessible to the audience, but which at times were fragmented and elusive. Also very notably, there were distinct American references, with the marching-band type being the most obvious. There were also references to what seemed to be folk tunes and hymns. Additionally, there were several excerpts of dance pieces and rags, which broke through clearly from the more traditional art music into which they were incorporated.

The fifth movement, however, was the most distinctive. It was less traditional than the previous four, and though all of the previous movements also contained samples of American folk music and had moments of distinctly modernist elements, these were most dominant in the fifth. The most obvious American elements were the references to traditional folk tunes like “Camptown Races”, “Turkey in the Straw”, “Pig Town Fling”, “Long, long Ago” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”.

All of these modernist and American elements become very apparent as one closely studies the movement’s structure. It is in sonatina form, with an exposition section followed immediately by a recapitulation and then a coda. The first theme area of the exposition has two thematic ideas, the first of which is presented from the onset of the piece, but then is interrupted by an excerpt of “Camptown Races” before it repeats. This reference to “Camptown Races” is an example of the nationalistic American elements that Ives employs in this movement. The repetition of the first thematic idea is not complete, however, because, through a series of modulations, it moves into the second set of thematic material. This is opened by a little patriotic march excerpt, yet another very American and nationalistic reference, and followed soon after by another excerpt of “Camptown races”. “Turkey in the Hay” later can clearly be heard being played in fragmented form – a very modernist element in the piece – by the strings, then “Camptown Races” once again is referred to. This first theme area moves into a mini-development section as both of the thematic ideas are recalled in fragments. This fragmentary mini-development produces a very kaleidoscopic effect which exemplifies the modernist elements in this fifth movement. Within it, several different melodic lines occur simultaneously, each having distinct contrasting rhythms, so that each is played in and of itself rather than as a harmony to a main melodic idea.

The music slows, modulating into the second theme group. Here, the slow American song “Long Long Ago” is employed, with a descant variation of the first thematic idea from the first theme group occurring in counterpoint. It again is one of the very obvious American references in the movement, with its mournful balladic quality very distinctive amid the much more energetic themes which precede and succeed it. This second thematic idea repeats, but with the descant changing a little bit the second time around. The cadence theme then enters abruptly, developing a fragmented and kaleidoscopic quality to it as it progresses. Once again, the earlier themes are recalled in this section, the sort of mini-development for the second theme group.

This exposition section ends and moves straight into the recapitulation, when the 1st thematic idea of the first theme group returns, once again in the tonic. As before, references to “Camptown Races” and “Turkey in the Hay” are made, but this time the short repeat passage preceding the modulation to the second thematic idea is different, with the melody passing from section to section in the orchestra. The second theme returns, introduced again by the little marching-band excerpt, but then something very different occurs. Instead of the normal bridge to the second theme group, there is a new developmental bridge, which recalls all of the themes previously introduced, and gives fragments of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”. This developmental bridge has moments that sound polytonal. There is a wash of different thematic material being played simultaneously, with varying rhythmic characters, which produces a very frenetic and incoherent quality to it. At the same time, however, it does retain a level of tonality and coherence. It is, therefore, modernist in terms of its pushing the envelope of tonality and harmony, but at the same time it is not freely atonal or inaccessible.

There is a sudden silence before a mini-bridge into the recapitulation of the first thematic idea of the second theme group. Here, the statement of the theme is different from its initial exposition as it is in the tonic, as opposed to modulating into a new key. Additionally, the theme differs from how it was presented in the exposition because it is played by the cello rather than by a wind instrument. This second theme repeats before exploding suddenly once again into the cadence theme.

The lengthy coda begins, distinctly more incoherent than the previous sections, and has a much more obvious ploytonality to it. Fragments of “Columbia Gem of the Ocean” are presented hazily while several of the previously stated themes are recalled simultaneously. After several climactic modulations, the dramatic American military bugle call breaks through with militant drums. Finally, “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” comes through unabashedly. The whole of the coda is particularly modernist in character, while also being extremely nationalistic. This is achieved through the kaleidoscopic references to and development of thematic material – many references to American folk melodies – and the general lack of traditional harmony or easily accessible melody in the coda. Furthermore, once “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” finally asserts itself, the music becomes increasingly polytonal, though still not atonal, and very frenetic in quality, particularly in the strings. Several thematic ideas are played in different tonics and with different rhythms at the same time until they are finally eclipsed by another bugle call  and the final jarring dissonance which ends the movement, and the piece. The entire movement has distinct modernist and experimental elements in it, but none so much as this strange ending. The final blaring chord could not be more discordant, and leads to no resolution, and amazingly, it is this chord that Ives uses – almost as a joke – to end the entire piece.

 

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