Notes and Editorial Reviews
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Among the extraordinary gems in the Louisville Orchestra’s commissioning legacy and the First Edition Records archive are three vital works of variations for orchestra, composed in a short span in the 1950s by three of the most important composers of the Twentieth Century: Elliot Carter, Aaron Copland, and Luigi Dallapiccola. The variation form provided these composers with the structure to create an orchestral essay at a time when the genre of the symphony was widely considered obsolete as a vehicle of expression. What links these works is not only their remarkable origin, commissioned by, composed for, and given their world premiere performance and recording by the Louisville Orchestra less than six years apart; but also that each work is among the strongest orchestral works in the catalog of each composer.
These works emanate from an intellectually fervent decade, and from minds deeply involved in the debates of their day. “Variations” was a fertile concept that, as Elliot Carter alludes to in the enclosed notes, provided the construct for more than musical machinations. Collectively, these pieces are varia-tions of modernist postures, uniting classical construct with serialist technique, and utilizing high degrees of formalist process while not sacrificing expression in any way. Perhaps the variation form, divorced from programmatic intent, provided the space for these composers to exercise their considerable musi-cality and assert their formidable personalities – with what Luigi Dallapiccola referred to as liberation.
Aaron Copland’s Orchestral Variations, which is an orchestration of his masterful Piano Variations of 1930 and is from his unpopular “severe” style, employs a quasi-serialist five-note row. Yet this is unmistakably Copland, with wide open intervals (albeit diminished or dissonant) and dance-like rhythmic motives which bear remarkable similarity to his Americanist works. The sensibility of his musical personality transcending and even mocking the vagaries of outside opinion, is in this work strongly reminiscent of Shostakovich.
Luigi Dallapiccola’s ability to create serene musical moments is widely admired, and in his Variazioni per Orchestra, an orchestration of Dallapiccola piano variations entitled Analibera’s Notebook, that serenity is brilliantly juxtaposed with moments that are strange and disorienting. In a February 20, 1957 letter to Louisville Orchestra manager Richard Wangerin, Aaron Copland cited Variazioni, commissioned and recorded by the Louisville Orchestra just three years earlier, as encouragement for Copland to orchestrate his own Piano Variations of 1930 to fulfill his Louisville commission.
How enervating is Elliot Carter’s Variations for Orchestra, which uses themes like dramatic characters, rushing them through profound sweeps of emotional contrast and scenarios of unpredictable variety! Variations thoroughly expresses the complexity of its time, with wonderfully twisting lines moving at different speeds and with intersections forever changing.
With its polytonality and sense of collision and audacious proclamation, Charles Ives’ Variations on “America” is a prescient cultural artifact. Ives transforms an ubiquitous national hymn into a reflective, congenial metaphor for the often paradoxical countercurrents of things American. Composed for organ in 1891, with interludes added shortly thereafter, the work was expertly orchestrated by William Schuman in 1963 on a commission from BMI. For Ives, there was more than one “America,” a notion that Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra later embraced with their dedicated commitment to communicating the variations heard on this vital recording.