Edvard Grieg’s Ballade for Piano, opus 24, is a good example of Hans Christian Andersen’s postulation: Where words fail, music speaks. It was composed in the winter of 1875, after both of Edvard’s parents had died the same autumn. It was also at the time that his marriage with Nina was going through a critical period. Some years earlier their one-year-old daughter Alexandra had died of meningitis, and it is difficult to imagine how dramatically this affected the composer. Grieg was never in a state of mind to perform the work. He played it once only, at the home of his friend Max Abraham, and was totally exhausted afterwards. This work places Grieg firmly in the romantic music tradition, but it also contributes something quite new.
Frederic Chopin composed his four ballads between 1831 and 1842. Johannes Brahms also wrote four ballads in the same poetic narrative style, but these too are shorter pieces. Unlike these composers Grieg bases his work on a Norwegian folk tune followed by fourteen variations. The result is a majestic variation work lasting over twenty minutes, presenting every thinkable and unthinkable nuance of an artist’s emotional gamut. The version on this evening’s programme was arranged for string orchestra by the artistic director of the ensemble, Øystein Gimse.
The Italian composer Luigi Boccherini was an accomplished cellist, and wrote twelve concertos for the instrument. As the son of a double bass player he received cello tuition at an early age and developed into a virtuoso performer. He was a mere teenager when he composed the two cello concertos on this evening’s programme. At the time there were not many solo works for cello, so he used to perform virtuoso violin pieces. He later raised the status of the cello by composing more advanced parts for it in his string quartets. After several successful European tours he was engaged at the Spanish court in Madrid as a musician and composer. This evening’s soloist, Truls Mørk, describes Boccherini as the first composer to focus on the notes in the upper register of the cello. In doing so he made way for the cello as an attractive solo instrument. His perception is that Boccherini has a very personal style with virtuoso elegance and beautiful melodies tinged with melancholy.
Igor Stravinsky had wanted to compose a ballet inspired by Greek mythology for a long time when he received a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at the American Library of Congress. They wanted a thirty-minute ballet with six dancers and a string orchestra. Stravinsky decided to give the central role in the work to Apollon Musagète – Apollo, the leader of the Muses. The work, completed in 1928 and premiered the same year, has remained one of the most groundbreaking works of the twentieth century. Stravinsky aimed to create a ‘ballet blanc’ – a white ballet, costumed in white and devoid of irrelevant orchestral effects. Peace, clarity and serenity are the qualities Stravinsky aims to express. There is actually no conflict element in the action or in the music. The introduction to the Prologue is typical of early French overtures, and broad diatonic themes permeate the music to the end of the Prologue. The second of Apollo’s variations reflects Stravinsky’s studies of Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, and after a lively coda, ‘the stream of the music broadens out into a delta of great serenity and calm’, as Eric Walter White wrote in 1966.
Text: Annabel Guaita
English version: Roger Martin
The section about Stravinsky is based upon material from Marina A Ledin and Victor Ledin, Encore Consultants LLC.