1887 – 1959
Fantasie for Soprano Saxophone, 1948
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Hector was the son of a senior administrator at the National Library. As an amateur musician, his father recognized his son’s innate musicality, and taught him to play cello and viola. Additionally, in addition to having formal lessons, teenager Villa-Lobos became attracted to the music of local street musicians. These vagabond musicians taught him guitar and introduced him to all the informal “pop” music known to amateur musicians. Then, for 8 years, he travelled on escapades throughout the underbrush of Brazilian jungles, where he collected folk tunes, chants, tribal rites music, and instruments of all kinds. Upon a final return to the Big City life, he earned his way playing cello, guitar and clarinet in bars, cinemas, and theatres. He also entered the National Institute of Music, but quickly decided that formal, guided, classroom instruction was not for him. As he often stated, “I learned music from birds in the jungle – not from formal academy instruction.” And thus he became known as a “Brazilian primitive.”
By 1919 the unusual sounds of his music were published and distributed as authentic Brazilian music. What stirred followers and fans was an assimilation of rhythms, melodies, and strange-sounding instruments producing sentimental melodies, ever-changing meters, and often, weird percussive and other orchestral effects.
Touring pianist and long-time friend Artur Rubinstein included the Brazilian’s works in his concerts, before persuading Villa-Lobos to join him in Paris for an exposure to native folk melodies of other European composers. He embarked on concert tours throughout the continent, openly preaching “out of the box” music styles, urging composers to embrace musical sounds from other cultures. Copland and Bernstein were deeply affected by this. All together the composer’s works numbered in the thousands including titled solo pieces, chamber music, concerti, vocal music and symphonies. Many were not cataloged and in a cluttered state, mostly forgotten by the composer.
Villa-Lobos had one more career to forge. This was in an unorthodox way to teach public school music to non-music-reading children. Simply, the pedagogy involved using different hand signals to direct voice pitch and dynamics. In 1930 he presented his plan, and when it became nationally adopted, he became Director of Public Education for Brazil. The last 10 years of the musician’s life were spent traveling, teaching, conducting and proselytizing both his music and teaching ideas. Lingering bladder cancer curtailed most of his activities, and the 64-year-old died in his native Brazil.
The 1948 Fantasie for Soprano Saxophone & Chamber Orchestra stands at the cornerstone of repertoire for soprano saxophone. The 10-minute work is in 3 movements using solo saxophone, a small string section, and 3 horns. The piece reveals stylistic freedom from established structures, and features solo virtuosity and unusual meters. The First Movement begins with blistering orchestral music, and octave leaps and long runs through the range of the saxophone. A rocking, languorous second theme offers momentary relief. The Second Movement begins with a long, wistful viola solo, with the saxophone soloist following up on the viola’s idea. This leads without pause into the Third Movement which is most virtuosic in top speed, but settles down briefly before a final raucous orchestral chord.
PABLO DE SARASATE
1844 – 1908
Zigeurnerweisen (Gypsy Airs), 1878
Pablo de Sarasate was born in Pamplona, Spain, the son of a local military bandmaster. He revealed his innate musical abilities at an early age, and began violin lessons at age 5, giving his first public concert at age 8. This caught the ear of a wealthy patron who funded Sarasate to study in Madrid. The pre-teen proved a sensation at the court of Queen Isabella II, and was funded for study at the Paris Conservatory and won its highest honor, the Premier Prix. At this time, Sarasate’s violin playing was noted as dazzling with virtuosic technique and presentation. However, critics noted that he lacked production of dynamics to accompany grand showmanship. And yet, his dashing, extroverted personality attracted supportive, wealthy patrons, which made professional success inevitable.
Sarasate’s compositional output resulted in 57 works, with the majority being unknown. But his contemporary composers, Edouard Lalo, Max Bruch and Saint Saens wrote emotionally inflamed works for him that he premiered; all remain in current repertoire.
Over the course of a successful 40 years on the touring circuit, Sarasate acquired two early 18th century Stradivarius violins that were bequeathed to the Paris Conservatory and to the Conservatory of Madrid. At age 46 the violinist retired to a villa in Biarritz, France, where he died in 1908 from life-long, problematic bronchitis.
One of Sarasate’s best-known works is Zigeurnerweisen (Gypsy Airs), based on musical themes and dances of Roma gypsies, with sections devoted to the slow-fast rhythms of the Hungarian czardas (dances). This 8-minute piece is divided into four sections, leading off with the orchestra’s slow, majestic energy coupled with the violin’s quiet entrance. Section 2 is a mournful lento with improvisational, short phrases punctuated by difficult runs and technically demanding figures. Section 3 takes the form of a melancholic melody played by a muted soloist. In Section 4 the music turns rapid with long runs, short strokes in fast tempos, pizzicatos (plucked strings), and double stops (two or more simultaneously-played notes).
1874 – 1934
The Planets, 1918
Following three generations of professional musicians in the Holst family, Gustav, born in Cheltenham, England, seemed destined to follow a musical career. His father was a professional organist, choirmaster, and piano teacher, and his mother was a talented singer and pianist. Both spotted their son’s musicality early, and quickly provided him with studies in piano, violin, and then trombone to help improve an asthmatic condition. Although his preferred instrument was piano, overall poor health (asthma, bad eyesight, neuritis in one arm) eliminated his wish to become a professional pianist. Despite this problem, Gustav entered the Royal College of Music on a compositional scholarship and, upon completion, played professional trombone before concentrating on composition and full-time teaching jobs. His compositional repertoire totaled 200 works, including ballet, operas, choral hymns, and songs for a variety of instruments. However, while on a conducting job, Holst fell off the podium and suffered a brain concussion, and other health problems ensued. Heart problems and an unsuccessful ulcer operation resulted in his death at age 60.
Said the British musician, “I study only things which suggest music to me,” so a fervent interest in astrology and the “casting” of horoscopes caused him to begin The Planets, which took 2 years to complete (1914-1916). This became a one hour suite of seven tone poems, which Holst prefaced with, “I have purposely not included program notes. This music has no connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. The writing of a phrase following each title provides a hint of what is to come. To me, that is sufficient.” Well, such didn’t appear so, judging by the reams of descriptive material this writer has located.
The pieces fall into two stylistic types of music, ranging from lively, brash, rhythmic movements to those of quiet meditations of a timeless nature. The first, Mars, opens in martial war-like fashion stated by brass and percussion, and perhaps portraying a world of cold, implacable brutality (think 1914-1918). Venus evokes a gentler mood with a solo horn answered by delicate flutes, harp, woodwinds, and solo violin. The calm, tranquil reverie casts off any thought of conflict. Winged-messenger Mercury brings a mood of capriciousness that never settles down. The music darts from instrument to instrument, although preferring the fairy-bell-like celesta, short woodwind sounds, and violins. Jupiter is the most English – with sounds of a merry-making folk festival and a hymn-like middle section by strings. Saturn is suggestive of the ceaseless progression of time, with a tolling bell amidst an uncertain beginning, struggles of maturing years, and finally, the emergence of peace and wisdom in later years. Uranus may remind listeners of the magic conjured up by The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, featuring a bassoon depicting pranks with a galloping march. The bassoon also makes some mysterious-sounding incantations before appearing to be consumed by flames. The suite concludes with mystical Neptune. By a women’s wordless chorus, the music is suggestive of an atmosphere of both outer and inner space. In the final bars, the orchestra falls silent and the voices echo until they fade into space.
Notes researched & written by Joan Olsson