"Above all, a composer should not aim to be fashionable. If you are not fashionable today, you may not be unfashionable tomorrow." —Francis Poulenc
Poulenc was born in Paris on January 7, 1899 and attained both a distinct musical voice and success at an early age. During the 1920s, he was one of the leading spirits of the group of young French composers known as "Les Six." Their music was often light, witty, satirical and urbane. They were in sympathy with and influenced by Stravinsky and "Neo-Classicism," and in opposition to the cerebral music of Schoenberg and of what they considered to be the religio-musical excesses of their countryman Olivier Messiaen. Poulenc, in particular, often juxtaposes passages of wit and irony with lush, sentimental outpourings.
Poulenc composed orchestral, chamber music, ballets, concertos, film scores, and opera, as well as powerful choral and sacred music. He is an acknowledged master in the field of French art songs, with over 130 to his credit. Indeed, melody was the most important element to him. Norbert DuFourcq writes: " . . . he found his way to a vast treasury of undiscovered tunes within an area that had, according to the most up-to-date musical maps, been surveyed, worked and exhausted." Of his own work, he wrote, "I know perfectly well that I’m not one of those composers who have made harmonic innovations like Igor (Stravinsky), Ravel, or Debussy, but I think there’s room for ‘New’ music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart-Schubert?"
The Trio is one of Poulenc’s most popular chamber works. It is in the spirit of an eighteenth century divertissement, light and witty, yet spiced with dissonances. It is eminently logical, combining and contrasting the two members of the double reed family with the percussive quality of the piano. Poulenc took the advice of Ravel (with whom he had been studying) and based the opening Presto on a Haydn Allegro, and the closing Rondo’s refrain begins as a near perfect quote of a well-known Beethoven melody until it makes a surprising turn into the fresh vocabulary of Poulenc's own distinctive language. Poulenc hinted that he patterned this movement after a piano concerto by Saint-Saëns. The Andante is gracefully Mozartean, though any suggestion of parody is dispelled by alluring shifts of tonality and chromaticism. The work is dedicated to Manuel de Falla, whom Poulenc had met at the home of his teacher, Ricardo Vines, in 1918. David Ewen writes, "One is sometimes reminded of a chase, sometimes a dialogue . . . the main musical discourse is entrusted to the piano, while the bassoon is relegated to the role of a discreet commentator and the oboe is allowed to intensify the more lyrical flights. The very heart of Poulenc is in this adroit little work."
Described as “show-stealing” (Baltimore City Paper) and a “dazzler” (Broad Street Review), Viet Cuong's music has been performed in venues across the USA, Canada, South Africa, Singapore, and Japan. He has been a Naumburg and Roger Sessions Fellow in Princeton University’s doctoral program, and holds Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from the Peabody Conservatory, where he received the Presser Undergraduate Scholarship, the Peabody Alumni Award, and the Gustav Klemm Award for excellence in composition. He is among the youngest composers to receive residencies from the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Ucross Foundation, and Yaddo.
Cuong’s works have been performed at the Aspen Music Festival, International Double Reed Society Conference, Bowdoin Music Festival, the US Navy Band International Saxophone Symposium, Midwest Clinic, CBDNA conferences, and the GAMMA-UT Conference. Viet was a winner of the ASCAP Morton Gould Composers Award, Walter Beeler Memorial Prize from Ithaca College, Dolce Suono Ensemble Young Composers Competition, Atlantic Coast Conference Band Directors Association Grant, National Band Association Young Composer Mentor Project, and the Prix d’Été Composition Competition.
"Explain Yourself" is a contemporary response to Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano. It takes a theme from Poulenc’s "Aubade" and filters it through an energetic post-modern lens.
The composer's website is https://vietcuongmusic.com
Audience members are in for a sound that they’ve never heard before: Explain Yourself features what must be the most multiphonic oboe notes ever written in a tonal chamber music work. Multiphonics are a special playing technique where oboist Alex Vvedensky will he heard to play multiple notes at once, similar to the ‘double-stop’ effect used by string instrumentalists. The multiphonic effect adds to the wild feeling that infuses the piece.
Note from the Composer
“As an admirer of twentieth century French music, I’ve always loved the music of Francis Poulenc. I’m particularly drawn to the joyous, witty nature of many of his pieces, and, with this piece being for the Poulenc Trio, I wanted to pay homage to Poulenc and his sense of humor. As such, the piece actually begins with a direct quote of his chamber piano concert, Aubade. This quote serves a few purposes: it acts as a marker for when the first section “repeats” itself, and, perhaps more importantly, the main melody of the entire piece uses the same pitches as the opening of Aubade.
After the Poulenc quote, the piece jolts into a tango-like romp with a baroque flair. The instruments all play an equal role in this music and, all things considered, it’s pretty mild mannered. After a few minutes, the Aubade quote signifies a trip back to the beginning after the first climax concludes—much like a repeat in a classical symphony’s first movement. However, this repeat goes awry as the oboist begins to act out by replacing regular notes with raucous multiphonics. The other instruments begin to pick up on this mischievous behavior, and both of them start to interrupt, mock, and distort the phrases. The pianist notices and isn’t pleased. Much like a frustrated parent or teacher, the pianist hammers out dense chords, essentially scolding the winds to get back on track.
Things nearly fall apart as the winds continue to misbehave. Eventually it all comes to a head when the pianist and oboist perform an imitative duet. In doing this, the oboist has a chance to explain himself and prove that, while these multiphonics* can be funny, they can also be played melodically and provide structure to a phrase. Won over, the pianist joins in on the fun and the piece concludes in a place where functional classical harmonies and multiphonics can coexist.
*Audience members are in for a sound that they’ve never heard before: Explain Yourself features what must be the most multiphonic oboe notes ever written in a tonal chamber music work. Multiphonics are a special playing technique where oboist Alex Vvedensky will he heard to play multiple notes at once, similar to the ‘double-stop’ effect used by string instrumentalists. The multiphonic effect adds to the wild feeling that infuses the piece.
Perhaps the most important Russian composer since Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke began his musical education in Vienna where his father, a journalist and translator, had been posted. In 1948 the family moved to Moscow, where Schnittke studied piano and received a diploma in choral conducting.
In 1985, Schnittke suffered the first of a series of serious strokes. Despite his physical frailty, however, Schnittke experienced no loss of creative imagination or productivity. Beginning in 1990, Schnittke resided in Hamburg, maintaining dual German-Russian citizenship. He died after suffering another stroke in 1998 in Hamburg.
Schnittke’s early music showed the strong influence of Shostakovich; later he was noted above all for his hallmark “polystylistic” idiom. Schnittke wrote in a wide range of genres and styles. He was a prolific composer of scores for the Soviet film industry, and thematic material from three of these scores forms the basis for Suite in the Old Style, a perfect example of his neo-classical style. Schnittke originally composed the suite for violin and piano, and later made a version for chamber orchestra which has been widely performed.
"Pastorale" and "Ballet" are from a comedy film about a dentist's amorous adventures. "Pantomime" and "Minuet" are from scores for animated children's films. The Fugue comes from a documentary about a sportsman's double life ("Sport, Sport, Sport"). The entire score reflects the varied sound world and fertile creative imagination of Alfred Schnittke.
In a musical career spanning half a century, Shostakovich engrossed himself with a staggeringly diverse range of genres and styles. Beyond the fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets, the lesser-known works of Shostakovich offer intrigue and interest likewise. With the reappraisal of Shostakovich in recent times, his light music is beginning to enjoy unprecedented popularity in concert halls and record catalogues.
“Romance” was the most famous movement of “The Gadfly Suite,” probably Shostakovich's best-known film score. The film, which was based on the novel of the same name by Ethel Lilian Voynich, was set in 1840s Italy under the dominance of Austria, a time of tumultuous revolt and uprisings. The story centers on the illegitimate son of a cardinal who joins the fight to unite Italy. When caught, he faces the firing squad as a willingly martyr. It is a story of faith, disillusionment, revolution, romance, and heroism. A best seller, it exerted a huge cultural influence, and was compulsory reading in the Soviet Union; indeed by the time of Voynich's death, “The Gadfly” is estimated to have sold 2,500,000 copies in the Soviet Union alone. “Romance” was used in the BBC/PBS TV series, “Reilly, Ace of Spies.”
“A Spin Through Moscow” is the first of the four dance-like movements of the orchestral suite from the comic operetta, “Moscow, Cheryomushki,” written in a bewildering variation of styles, from the Romantic idiom to vulgar popular song. The satirical plot deals with one of the most pressing concerns of urban Russians of the day, the chronic housing shortage and the difficulties of securing livable conditions. “Cheryomushki” translates to “bird-cherry trees,” the name of a real housing estate in southwest Moscow.
Among the first pieces commissioned by the Poulenc Trio, Three Etudes, written in 2013, are a study in shifting contrasts and moods by Baltimore-based composer Thomas Benjamin.
Benjamin was born in Bennington, Vermont, in 1940. He received his degrees from Bard College, Brandeis, Harvard and Eastman, studying composition with Carlos Surinach, Ernst Krenek, Arthur Berger and Bernard Rogers. He has composed works for all media, including concertos for violin, piano and viola, orchestral pieces, oratorios, cantatas, operas, song cycles and a great deal of chamber and choral music. He has won a wide variety of composition prizes in the U.S. and abroad and received numerous grants, awards and commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts, ASCAP, Meet-The-Composer, the National Music Theater Network, the Barlow Foundation and many others. Benjamin is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Corporation of Yado, and the Virginia Center.
Benjamin has also enjoyed a distinguished career as an author, teacher, performer and conductor. He is the author of two books on counterpoint and co-author of three music theory texts, published by Wadsworth. Still active as a composer, clarinetist and choral conductor, Benjamin taught for many years at the National Music Camp (Interlochen) and the University of Houston School of Music. He recently retired from teaching theory and composition at the Peabody Conservatory of The John Hopkins University, where he was for some years Chair of the Department of Music Theory.
Thomas Benjamin has won prizes in a wide variety of composition contests here and abroad, and has received numerous grants, awards and commissions, from the National Endowment for the Arts, ASCAP, Meet-the-Composer, the National Music Theater Network, the Barlow Foundation and many others. He is a Fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Corporation of Yaddo and the Virginia Center. Also active as a performer and choral conductor, Dr. Benjamin taught for many years at the National Music Camp (Interlochen), at the University of Houston School of Music, and just retired from teaching theory and composition at the Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University, where he was for some years Chair of the Department of Music Theory.
The composer writes: "Three Etudes" were written for the Poulenc Trio in 2003. They are colleagues of mine of the Peabody Conservatory, and I had long admired their playing, both individually and as an ensemble. The piece was composed to show off both their virtuosity and their expressive playing. Couched in an essentially tonal language, not without hints of jazz harmony in the first two movements, the piece is modest in scope and is written to be accessible to general audiences.
This “Concert-Fantasy,” based on tunes from Rossini’s final Italian opera, Semiramide, is from a collection of delightful opera-inspired arrangements dating from 19th century Paris and the salon music of that time. It contains works by the opera composers Rossini and Donizetti, favorites of the Parisian audiences, in arrangements by the oboe and bassoon virtuosi (and Conservatoire professors) of the day Charles Triébert, Henri Brod and Eugène Jancourt. These works were not only “tuneful” but enabled the performers to show off their ample virtuosity very well.
Semiramide is based on Voltaire's tragedy Semiramis, which in turn was based on the legend of Queen Semiramis of Babylon. It has been called "the last opera of the great Baroque tradition: the most beautiful, the most imaginative, possibly the most complete; but also, irremediably, the last."