New Ground: Stravinsky, Poulenc, Raff & Riley

2 p.m. Feb. 20, 2022 * Musical Instrument Museum

Joachim Raff (1822-1882)
Sinfonietta, Op. 188
         II. Allegro Molto
         III. Larghetto
         IV: Vivace

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Suite Française
         I. Bransle de Bourgogne
         II. Pavane
         III. Petite marche militaire
         IV. Complainte
         V. Bransle de Champagne
         VI. Sicilienne
         VII. Carillon

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Octet for Wind Instruments
         I. Sinfonia
         II. Tema con variazione
         III. Finale

15-minute intermission

Terry Riley (b. 1935)
In C


Thanks to the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture and Hannah Selznick for their support of this concert.

By Warren Cohen

Joachim Raff: Sinfonietta for Winds, Op. 188 (1873)

In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joachim Raff, we present a work that embodies the paradox of this most famous “unjustly neglected composer.”

By his early 50s Raff was as well known as Brahms. His Third and Fifth Symphonies were played everywhere, and his chamber and piano music sold well enough to provide an excellent income. But his star was already fading by the time he died in 1882 at the age of 60. Two decades later, the only works of his heard regularly were the Cavatina for Violin and Piano and this Sinfonietta. In the 1890s, his Third Symphony was still played more than any symphony of Tchaikovsky, but by 1910 no orchestra in the world had it in their repertoire.

He has had his champions. The film composer Bernard Herrmann was so outraged by Raff’s neglect that he financed a recording of the 5th Symphony. But it took the CD age for him to get a real cult following. When MusicaNova gave the remarkable 10th Symphony its American premiere in 2008, several Raff cultists traveled thousands of miles to hear it.

Performances of his works are still relatively rare, but there are plenty of recordings, and Raff has emerged somewhat from the shadows.

But only somewhat. The Sinfonietta, for example, is almost always performed in a conservatory or university setting, where a double wind quintet is an appealing way to give wind students a chance to play together without getting lost in a large wind band. Non-university concert performances are exceedingly rare, probably because the very thing that makes the Sinfonietta appealing in an educational setting makes programming it hard in the concert hall. It doesn’t fit neatly into any category of music, being neither chamber music, orchestral music or wind band music, although it has the flavor of all three.

It also displays the strengths that make Raff such an appealing composer and the weaknesses that led to his neglect. Raff was a fantastic melodist: The third movement of the Sinfonietta begins with a glorious tune that is authentically Raffian in sound and structure. He was an absolute genius at writing scherzo movements, especially ones with a sinister overtone. The second movement scherzo here is a perfect example. In this genre the only 19th century composer who was his equal was Mendelssohn. 

But he also could be discursive and overly dedicated to fulfilling all the requirements of sonata form. Some of his movements go on rather too long. For this concert, we’re skipping the rambling first movement and playing the last three movements, all of which show Raff at his energetic, innovative, and beautiful best.


Francis Poulenc: Suite Française (1935)

French composers of the early 20th century seemed determined to establish an identity as distinct as possible from the dominant German strain of music making. They favored short forms and suites over the longer symphonic structures; they favored wind instruments over strings; they aimed to amuse and to avoid profundity or seriousness. They also played homage to the great French composers of an earlier age, especially Rameau and Couperin. 

The young Francis Poulenc was right at home in this atmosphere. As a child, he sat at the piano and played dissonant chords that sounded like Debussy. His earliest music includes nonsense songs and delightfully melodic piano music. By his early 20s he was describing the sound of wind instruments as his natural musical domain. Much of his most successful instrumental music was written for winds, including the Sextet, the Sonatas for Flute and Oboe and this quirky, delightful recasting of Renaissance dances.

The scoring, for double reeds and heavy brass with harpsichord and percussion, is unusual but perfect for the music. All the instruments have an edge to their sound that emphasizes the spiky angularity Poulenc wanted to bring out in the music.

Some harmonies reflect Renaissance practice, but then Poulenc introduces dissonances that give the music a distinctive 20th century flavor. This mixing of the old and new was in vogue during the 1920s and ’30s, especially notable in the music of Milhaud and Stravinsky. Poulenc here uses this device to give a humorous and light-hearted edge to the music.


Igor Stravinsky: Octet for Wind Instruments (1923)

Stravinsky’s early career was dominated by the large orchestral scores of the Firebird, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring. When World War I hit, and it was no longer feasible to write for such large forces, Stravinsky began to scale back his instrumental demands. But he was always looking for new sounds, new combinations of instruments and new types of musical expressions. Living in Paris after the war, he was strongly influenced by the French love of wind instruments. His search for new artistic aims led him away from the Russian nationalism of his early music towards a more international — but recognizably French — expression.

This culminated in the development of his neo-classical phase beginning in the early 1920s. “Neo-baroque” might have been more appropriate, as the music was described as “Bach with wrong notes.” The first masterpieces of this style were the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and this Octet.

The Octet had its origin in a dream. Stravinsky imagined an unusual group of musicians playing together and the Octet certainly is an odd combination: flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets and two trombones. His writing for this combination is exemplary and was so successful it influenced an entire generation of composers to mix instruments in new ways.

The work is in three movements. The first has a short introduction and then a lively section that introduces the “Bach with wrong notes” idea. The second is a set of variations with a lively interlude that has some the most virtuoso writing of the entire piece. Interestingly, the waltz variation was the first music Stravinsky composed — the variation existed before the theme!

The last movement has much of the character of the first movement, but ends with 15 seconds of pure magic. So many of Stravinsky’s works end with the most memorable material, and that is never more true than here.


Terry Riley: In C (1964)

In C is often called “the beginning of minimalism.” Although that is not strictly true, the piece is the most influential work of early minimalism. Those who did not live through the world of “modern music” in the post-World War II era may not grasp how provocative the title was. It suggested tonality, and not only tonality but simple tonality. When I first heard the piece in 1970, I was shocked and intrigued that a contemporary composer dared use that title.

Ironically, the music really isn’t in C, although in many performances you hear a repeated C played in eighth notes, often on the top two octaves on the piano. Riley had not intended to have those Cs there, but the musicians had trouble staying together but while rehearsing for the first performance. Steve Reich (!) suggested adding the repeated note to help keep people together. The use of the C is optional, but some rhythmic device is essential to keep people feeling the pulse of the music.

In C is unique in that every performance will be different. The score consists of a single page of music with 53 patterns played by all performers in sequence, but every player moves to the next sequence when they feel they should. Players are encouraged to stop playing at times and come back when they feel their instrumental timbre will benefit the whole. Essentially, the music is composed anew with every performance.

The score does not specify what instruments are used, how many are used, the tempo of the music (other than it should be constant throughout) or how long the piece should be. Most run 40 minutes, though I have heard versions ranging from 30 minutes to over an hour.

The collective experience of this piece is remarkable, as the players create the music by listening and responding to each other, ending when every player reaches figure 53 and plays until it is time to stop.

Performances of “In C” are always an event, and by design, every experience of the work is unique. For both the performers and the audience, it is chance to get in touch with the spirit of community and improvisation which are central to fundamental experience of music.


The Personnel

Warren Cohen, conductor

Raff:  Sinfonietta
Jeanie Pierce, flute
    John and Kathleen Cleveland Chair
Lisa Tharp, flute
Kristin Fray, clarinet
Tony Masiello, clarinet
Diego Espinoza, oboe
    Nina Gurin Memorial Chair
Denise Wilson, oboe
Gina Stevens, bassoon
Joseph Kluesener, bassoon
Martha Edwards, horn
Gail Rittenhouse, horn
Poulenc:  Suite Français
Diego Espinoza, oboe
Denise Wilson, oboe
Gina Stevens, bassoon
Joseph Kluesener, bassoon
Stephen Martin, trumpet
Spencer Brand, trumpet
Sam Cohen, trombone
Bob Wittkamp, trombone
Dick Strobel, trombone
Sonja Branch, percussion
    Leger Strategies Chair
Chuck Sedgewick – harpsichord
Stravinsky: Octet
Jeanie Pierce, flute
Kristin Fray, clarinet
Gina Stevens, bassoon
Joseph Kluesener, bassoon
Stephen Martin, trumpet
Spencer Brand, trumpet
Bob Wittkamp, trombone
Dick Strobel, trombone
Riley: In C
All of the above, and more