Our season opener showcases the magnificent Emperor piano concerto by Beethoven and two female composers, Ethel Smyth and Missy Mazzoli. Smyth was a prominent English suffragette who wrote the lush Serenade in D minor, and Mazzoli’s River Rouge Transfiguration was inspired by the Ford motor plant in Detroit.
Missy Mazzoli: River Rouge Transfiguration
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”
Ethel Smyth: Serenade in D minor
Mazzoli—River Rouge Transfiguration
One of America’s most heralded young composers of today, Mazzoli wrote this shimmering and percussive piece in homage to the industrial beauty of a Ford manufacturing plant in Detroit.
Beethoven—Piano Concerto No. 5
Nicknamed the “Emperor Concerto,” this last and most popular of Beethoven’s piano concertos is unmistakably heroic in character, with the piano and orchestra playing off one another in a remarkably balanced way to build extra grandeur.
Smyth—Serenade in D minor
Penned at the urging of Tchaikovsky, this large-scale, four-movement work is a testament to the remarkable (yet—until recently—largely forgotten) compositional skills of Britain’s first well-known female composer.
Missy Mazzoli—River Rouge Transfiguration
Missy Mazzoli never met a single classical composer during her youth in rural Pennsylvania. But while her friends listened to the hair metal and grunge music that was popular in at the time, Mazzoli immersed herself in classical music—and specifically the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven. “I fell in love with classical music,” recalls the now-40-year-old composer, “and I decided that this was my way into the world.”
The world has certainly welcomed Mazzoli. After completing her formal musical studies, Mazzoli settled in Brooklyn, where she soon established herself as one of the most celebrated composers of her generation: “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart,” as Time Out New York proclaimed; “among the more consistently inventive and surprising composers now working in New York,” according to the New York Times.
Such high praise could go to a person’s head; but Mazzoli remains a distinctly human presence and voice. “The thing that inspires me most is … other human beings,” she explains in an episode of the video series, “Impromptu.” “I feel like a lot of my work is about human relationships and our attempts to communicate with each other … so even when I’m writing a purely instrumental work, I’m thinking about … different chords or melodies working with each other or against each other … in a very human way.”
Mazzoli composed River Rouge Transfiguration
in 2013, on commission from the Detroit Symphony. Here’s what she has to say about the music:
In my research I was struck by how often the landscape of Detroit inspired a kind of religious awe, with writers from every decade of the last century comparing the city’s factories to cathedrals and altars … In Mark Binelli’s recent book Detroit City Is the Place to Be
, he even describes a particular Sheeler photograph, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, as evoking “neither grit nor noise but instead an almost tabernacular grace. The smokestacks in the background look like the pipes of a massive church organ, the titular conveyor belts forming the shape of what is unmistakably a giant cross.” This image, of the River Rouge Plant as a massive pipe organ, was the initial inspiration for River Rouge Transfiguration. This is music about the transformation of grit and noise (here represented by the percussion, piano, harp and pizzicato strings) into something massive, resonant and unexpected. The “grit” is again and again folded into string and brass chorales that collide with each other, collapse, and rise over and over again.
Ludwig van Beethoven—Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”
The figure of Beethoven looms enormous in Western art music. Standing as he did at the threshold between the so-called Classical and Romantic periods, when musical values shifted from formalism and clarity toward more narrative, intuitive and emotional approaches to composition, Beethoven embodied at once the characteristics of both styles. Yet Beethoven’s music is fundamentally his own, the product of a turbulent life filled with great victories and equally great pain. The son of a consumptive mother and an alcoholic father, Beethoven saw himself become Europe’s most celebrated living composer, a hero to an entire continent. Yet he spent much of that life a reclusive misanthrope, crippled by deafness—the bane of his artistic life—and endless troubled relationships with women.
Beethoven began writing his Fifth Piano Concerto in 1808 and the piece was premiered in 1811. By then the composer’s hearing had already deteriorated significantly, so he left the solo part for the premiere in the hands of Friedrich Schneider. Concerned about the tradition of pianists inserting their own solo cadenzas into his work, the composer penned his own solos throughout the piece and, in one place in the score, specifically instructed the pianist not
to add a cadenza. The result is a truly symphonic concerto, unlike any that had come before in numerous ways.
The origins of the “Emperor” nickname remain somewhat uncertain. Most likely, the sobriquet for the concerto was bequeathed by Beethoven’s English publisher. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that the popular title is justified by the grandeur of the composition, which can be regarded as a high stylization of the military concertos of the time.
The concerto is structured in three movements, in the traditional fast-slow-fast arrangement. The first movement carries a majestic and powerful spirit from beginning to end. The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most beloved bits of music—a subdued and lyrical chorale in two parts, one led by the piano and the other by the orchestra. The final movement begins without pause; yet the shift is unmistakable, with the pianist launching into a galloping and gallant presentation of the movement’s main melody. From there, the music pitches ever forward, settling to a false calm before a brilliant final rush brings the concerto to its exciting conclusion.
Ethel Smyth—Serenade in D minor
The great 19th century composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky once wrote of Dame Ethel Smyth—a composer he considered a friend—that she was “one of the few women composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation.”
Pretty good…for a woman.
That backhanded compliment was hardly unique in Smyth’s experience. During a composing career that saw her become the first woman awarded an honorary doctorate in music from Oxford University, the first woman composer to be granted damehood, and the only woman composer prior to 2016 (that’s right, 2016!
) to have an opera performed by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the phrase “woman composer” always hung over her head like a double-edged sword—earning her both notice and dismissal. After her death in 1944 at the age of 86, her musical creations—which include six operas, a ballet and a range of choral, orchestral and chamber pieces—fell into a long period of near-complete obscurity.
Our world—and classical music in particular—still struggles with the issues Smyth faced. The Missoula Symphony’s own conductor, Julia Tai, is one of a shockingly small handful of women artistic directors for orchestras in America. As of 2020, just 11 percent of music directors with US orchestras were women.
Given the cultural conditions during her lifetime, the fact that Smyth’s music was ever heard outside of her own piano room is unfortunately remarkable itself. That it was performed by some of the great orchestras, soloists and opera companies of her time—earning respect from the likes of Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvořák, Edvard Grieg, and the conductor Bruno Walter—is a testament to both her determination and her truly remarkable gifts as a musician.
Smyth’s renown came despite her father’s vehemently opposition to her musical aspirations, and despite a fairly unproductive musical education. She did study for a time at the Leipzig Conservatory but left after a year. That time did prove pivotal however, as she managed to become acquainted during that year with Dvořák, Grieg and Tchaikovsky. The latter especially became a champion of her music, and the two corresponded frequently over the years. They also argued bitterly over the merits of Brahms’ music—which Tchaikovsky detested and Smyth exalted as “the culmination of all music.”
As a person, Smyth was as colorful and bold as her music. She was an avid hunter with a devotion to her dog Marco. She was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement and spent two months in a London prison for the cause. She had several relatively public romantic relationships with women and was especially smitten with the writer Virginia Woolf, who later recollected that being an object of Smyth’s affections was “like being caught by a giant crab.”
Brahms’ influence saturates every page of the Serenade in D, which Smyth wrote in 1889 as her first large-scale orchestral work. She was inspired to write the piece through the encouragement of Tchaikovsky, who “earnestly begged me to turn my attention at once to the orchestra and not be prudish about using the medium for all it is worth,” Smyth later wrote.
The Serenade is structured in four movements that together take on an unusual balance. The first and last movements have all the heft, richness and passion one might expect from a late-19th century symphonic-scale piece. The two inner movements are considerably more delicate, with some sections of the orchestra left out entirely. This organization gives the whole piece a feeling of a concert-within-a-concert—and also helps give extra excitement when the finale finally erupts.
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