Program Notes – Masterworks I

Trittico Botticelliano (Botticcelli Triptych). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Ottorino Respighi
Born in Bologna, Italy on July 9, 1879
Died in Rome, Italy on April 18, 1937


Respighi is best known as the composer of tone poems, a genre developed by Franz Liszt in the 19th century.   His musical language and consummate skill as an orchestrator were both influenced by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov with whom he studied while a member of the Imperial Theatre Orchestra in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the German composer Richard Strauss, and the French impressionist Claude Debussy.   His best known compositions outside of Italy are the three Roman themed suites, The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals.   All three of these works require large orchestras.  There is, however, another side to Respighi inspired by his interest in music of the Italian past such as Gregorian chant, Roman Catholic polyphony of the Renaissance, and early 18th century Italian opera.

Respighi was trained as a violinist, and for five years was a member of the Mugellini Quartet, before settling in as an instructor at the Santa Cecelia Academy in Rome.    Though he wrote nine operas, his leadership along with Alfredo Casella and Gian Francesco Malipiero in the revival of instrumental music in 20th century Italy remains his most important legacy.  He also created small orchestral settings of early Italian lute music in the three suites called Ancient Airs and Dances and Gli Uccelli (The Birds).

Trittico Bottecelliano was written in 1927, after Respighi’s first American visit, for small orchestra of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, French horn, triangle, glockenspiel, celeste, piano, harp and strings.  Respighi musically depicts three works of the great Florentine visual artist Sandro Botticelli (1445-1507) that hang together in the Uffizi Gallery.   La Primavera (The Spring) is a tribute to the famous Florentine festival still held today.  The painting includes Mercury, the Three Graces, Venus, Flora, Chloris, Zephyrus. Respighi’s music is dancelike including a quick dance in duple time, the tarantella and other early dance forms.

The second movement, The Adoration of the Magi, begins with a bassoon solo soon to be joined by the oboe in a slow and elegant dance called the siciliano.  The ancient chant melody Veni, Veni, Emanuel makes its way into the melody plan. The popular Italian hymn “O bambino” appears at the end after a contrasting middle section in 5/4 time.

The final movement is based on The Birth of Venus, one of many paintings commissioned by the Medici family.    The repeated rhythmic figure is meant to portray the movement of the waves, at first gentle but increasing in intensity as Venus emerges from the oyster shell and later from the sea itself.


Le Tombeau de Couperin. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Maurice Ravel
Born in Ciboure, Basse-Pyrenees on March 7, 1875
Died in Paris on December 28, 1937


Ravel’s homage to the great harpsichordist/composer Francois Couperin (1668-1733) was originally a composition in six movements written during World War 1 (1914-17) for solo piano.   Four of the six movements were orchestrated by the composer in 1919.   Each movement of the piece, which replicates a baroque dance suite is dedicated to one or more of Ravel’s friends who were killed in the “War to end all wars.”   Pianist Marguerite Long, whose husband was the dedicatee of one of the movements, premiered the piano version in 1919 and staunchly defended Ravel against the critics who felt the work lacked solemnity.  “The dead are unhappy enough as they are,” said Long. “Is it necessary to dedicate laments to them forever? When a musician of genius gives them the best of himself and at the same time something they would have enjoyed, isn’t that the most moving tribute he can make?”

The Prelude contains one of the most difficult and elegant oboe passages in orchestral literature.  The tempo is Vif, or quick.

The second movement is a Forlane or Forlana, a sprightly 18th-century court dance of northern Italian origin.  The rhythmic movement is somewhat similar to the Siciliano, though melodically Ravel’s tune jumps around a little.

Menuet. Allegro moderato—The Menuet (Minuet) is another courtly dance, cast in triple meter.  In symphonic music it was the form most often used as the dance movements in the 18th and 19th centuries, even though Beethoven introduced the quicker scherzo in most of his symphonies.  Actually the piece consists of two dances, a minuet and trio, with the minuet section being repeated in an altered and shortened version.

IV. Rigaudon. Assez vif—The Rigaudon  or  Rigadoonis a lively dance popular in France and England during the 17th and 18th centuries in a fast duple meter. The finale’s vigorous outer sections surround a more plaintive middle section (Moins vif),  of solos for oboe, English horn, clarinet and flute.


Piano Concerto #3 in D Minor, Op. 30. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born in Semyonovo, Russia on April 1, 1873
Died in Beverly Hills, California on March 28, 1943

The Third Concerto was written for Rachmaninoff’s first North American visit in 1909.   Rachmaninoff and his family were living in Dresden where he had moved in order to spend more time composing.   His career as a pianist and conductor took up too much of his artistic life.   The plan seems to have worked, as he produced his Symphony #2, the tone poem Isle of the Dead, Piano Sonata #1, and the Third Concerto during these years.

The premiere of this work took place with the New York Symphony conducted by Walter Damrosch on November 28, 1909.   Rachmaninoff dedicated the score to his friend the pianist Josef Hofmann, though Hofmann never performed the piece.   Several weeks later the New York Philharmonic and its conductor Gustav Mahler engaged Rachmaninoff, and the composer was dazzled by the careful rehearsal and the fine performances born by this collaboration.

The concerto begins simply with a two-bar orchestral introduction that leads to a complete statement by  solo piano of the first movement’s principal theme in octaves.   Rachmaninoff stays in a fairly small range of notes, and it has been suggested that the melody resembles a Russian liturgical chant “The Tomb, O Savior, Soldiers Guarding.”   The second theme opens with quiet exchanges between the orchestra and the piano before fully diving into a slower theme in a major key. The first part of the first theme is restated before the movement is pulled into a loud development section. Most of the development uses counterpoint, especially the stricter elements of canon.  At times it seems a bit hidden, like an eighth note passage in the piano in which the left hand and the right hand play overlapping figures. For this movement, Rachmaninoff wrote two cadenzas: the chordal original, which is considered optional, and a second more frequently performed version with a lighter and more improvisatory style.  Both cadenzas include solo flute, oboe, clarinet and horn layering the opening theme over delicate broken chords, or arpeggios in the piano.  Following the cadenza’s quiet conclusion, the opening theme is restated by the piano, with the orchestra accompanying, soon closing with a quiet, rippling coda reminiscent of the second theme.    Rachmaninoff worked very hard to create an orchestral accompaniment that would allow the piano to come through clearly in the many soft passages of this movement and his careful orchestration has been described by the late Michael Steinberg as “Mozartean.”

Rachmaninoff called the second movement an Intermezzo (Intermission).  The orchestra begins the movement with a long, slow introduction eventually joined by the piano entering in the lower part of its range.  Soloist and orchestra seem to improvise a series of variations around this opening melody.  The melody soon moves to the tonic major which is the second theme.   After the first theme development and recapitulation of the second theme, the main melody from the first movement reappears but this time it is a brief and spritely waltz.   The waltz subtly subsides and transitions into solo oboe reintroducing the introductory material. The piano provides a short cadenza which begins a transition into the Finale.

The third movement (Finale: Alla Breve) is quick and athletic.   There are several variations on the themes that are used in the first movement, and this further emphasizes the concerto’s cyclic nature.  There is no conventional development; rather that segment is replaced by a lengthy episode using the third movement’s first theme, which leads to the two themes from the first movement.  A recapitulation returns to the original themes, building up to a climax somewhat similar to the first movement’s cadenza but this time it is accompanied by the orchestra. The movement concludes with a triumphant and passionate second theme melody in D major.

Sergei Rachmaninoff called the Third Concerto his favorite.   Nevertheless, it was not until the 1930s and largely due to the advocacy of Vladimir Horowitz that other pianists began to program the piece.

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