Program Notes

The Young Artists & Carmina Burana

An American Composer’s Perspective on Tomasi, Khachaturian, Liszt & Orff

For The Young Artists & Carmina Burana March 24, 2018

© Robert Xavier Rodríguez [read bio]

Tonight’s Plano Symphony Orchestra concert features music by three 20th-century composers along with Franz Liszt, a 19th-century composer whose work looked ahead to the 20th century.  The first half comprises three concertos played by the winners of the 2018 PSO Young Artists’ Competition followed, after intermission, by one of the most popular of all works for chorus and orchestra.


Henri Tomasi (Aw-REE Toh-mah-ZEE) (1901-1971) was a French composer of Corsican descent.  He studied at the Paris Conservatory with Paul Vidal and Vincent d’Indy and won the Premiere Prix in conducting along with the coveted Prix de Rome.  His music is reminiscent of his contemporary Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and of the members of the sassy group of French composers known as Les Six, particularly Georges Auric and Darius Milhaud.  Cinematic and sometimes jazzy, his works include many scores for the stage.  He is best remembered for his concertos for the flute, trumpet, viola, horn, clarinet, trombone, bassoon, violin and tonight’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone. 

Tonight, we hear the concerto’s final movement, a brilliant toccata full of stirring and highly idiomatic filigree for the solo instrument.  Sometimes, the saxophone joins the other woodwinds in a mad scramble; at other times, it reflects lyrically as the other instruments continue the feverish activity.  In a surprising ending, the frenzy suddenly stops, and both saxophone and orchestra burst forth grandly in a slow, dramatic coda. 


Aram Khachaturian (Ah-RAM Ka-cha-tu-ri-AHN) (1903-1978) was a Russian composer of Armenian descent.  He studied at the Moscow Conservatory and gained the support of his contemporaries Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich.  The Union of Soviet Composers censured Khachaturian for his association with these allegedly more progressive composers, but the authorities later accepted his work as sufficiently conservative to satisfy the party line.  His tuneful and accessible music is informed by the golden orchestration techniques of Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov as it combines nationalistic idioms with helpings of Maurice Ravel plus driving rhythms from Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945). 

Tonight, we will hear the first movement of Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D Minor, which was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1941.  David Oistrakh gave the premiere performance and served as technical advisor to the composer for the finely-crafted and technically-demanding violin passage work.  The first movement is in sonata-allegro form, with a short, rhythmic orchestral introduction leading quickly to the entrance of the solo violin, playing a dancing, folk-like theme.  There are two cadenzas: a short one after the exposition and another, beginning as a duet with the clarinet, leading to the recapitulation.  Through the recapitulation, listen for the clarinet, as it sometimes emerges from the orchestra to continue its earlier role as a musical side-kick to the solo violin.


Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was a Hungarian composer, pianist and conductor.  Liszt was the first musical personality to achieve international “rock-star” celebrity in his own time.  Liszt invented the modern piano recital; before Liszt, piano solos were interspersed on concerts with a variety of ensembles.  And he sat with his distinctive right profile to the audience, his hands clearly visible; pianists had previously sat facing straight out.  Liszt’s matinée-idol good looks were legendary, and women swooned in his presence, fighting to collect locks of his flowing hair.

The best-known and highest-paid musician in the world, Liszt was quick to play benefit concerts and to contribute large sums to humanitarian causes.  He never accepted money for his teaching, and he was generous to other composers, often premiering and giving repeat performances of the works of his colleagues, both as a pianist and as a conductor.  His tours included his native Hungary plus France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Rumania, Poland, Denmark, Russia, Ukraine, England, Ireland and Turkey.  At ease with the crowned heads of Europe, he demanded respect for his art.  When Czar Nicholas I of Russia began a conversation during a performance, Liszt immediately stopped playing.  When the Czar asked why he stopped, Liszt answered, “When Your Majesty speaks, music must be silent.” 

Liszt’s nearly 75 years bridged two musical worlds.  As a youth, he studied with Mozart’s rival Salieri and played for Beethoven, who blessed him with a kiss.  In his later years, Liszt, in turn, met and encouraged young composers such as Fauré and Debussy, who became important in the 20th Century.  Liszt was particularly important in the musical development of his contemporary Richard Wagner (1813-1883).  He contributed a wealth of musical ideas to Wagner, and, more importantly, he inspired Wagner by the example of his own adventurous, highly-chromatic works, some of which bordered on atonality. 


20th-century composer Bartók called Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, “the first perfect realization of cyclic sonata form, with common themes treated on the variation principle.”  Instead of using a series of contrasting themes, Liszt derives all of his material from a single dramatic motive, stated at the beginning, to which he is said to have sung words in German, “Das versteht ihr alle nicht!" ("None of you understands this!”), followed by a musical “Ha-HAH!"   The concerto follows the four movements of a Classical symphony (allegro, adagio, scherzo, allegro), played without pause.  The last section includes a prominent solo for an instrument not often featured in the orchestra:  the triangle. 


Carl Orff (1885-1982) was a German conductor and an editor of early music, including Claudio Monteverdi, but his greatest achievement was the development of Orff‑Schulwerke, an influential series of educational materials for schoolchildren, in which tonal music is linked to spoken language and physical movement to encourage creativity.  As a composer, Orff is remembered for his choral ballet Carmina Burana, based on 13th-century Latin texts found at the Bavarian Benedictine Abby in Beuren (BOY-ren).  Tonight, we will hear a selection of 14 of the work’s 25 movements.

The title, Carmina Burana, has an exotic, pagan ring that belies its simple meaning: “Songs of Beuren.”  The bawdy texts, by renegade clerical students called Goliards, constitute an important body of secular Latin poetry.  The subject matter is gleefully irreverent: celebrating riotous living, with philosophical meditations on the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joys and beauties of springtime and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling and, above all, lust.  There is an especially witty lament by a swan as he is roasting on a spit.

The Beuren manuscript contains some of the original medieval music for the songs, but Orff did not use it.  Instead, Orff based his score on two masterpieces by his Russian contemporary Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Not only are there ample textural borrowings from Stravinsky’s opera/oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927), based on Sophocles; many passages are lifted directly from Stravinsky’s choral ballet Les Noces (“The Wedding”) (1923), based on Russian folk texts.  Like Oedipus Rex, Carmina Burana is in Latin, scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra; like Les Noces, it combines dance and colorful percussion with mesmerizing ostinatos and dramatic, primal vocal outbursts.  Unlike Stravinsky, however, whose music abounds in contrapuntal motivic development and rich layers of shifting sonorities, textures, meters and rhythms, Orff dials down the complexities in favor of simple modal fragments repeated with no variation, accompanied by triads hammering out a single rhythm. The result casts a barbaric, minimalist spell. 

Carmina Burana’s premiere, in 1937, was under Nazi auspices.  Hitler had banned performances of Stravinsky and of Germany’s modernist masters such as Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill as Entartete Musik (“Degenerate Music”), but the Nazis seized upon the parallel between Orff’s score and their own formula for mass persuasion: “Confine yourself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”  They hailed Carmina Burana as the glorification of an imaginary past of medieval Germanic splendor and as a symbol of Germany’s destiny for world domination.  There were propaganda films showing Nazi tanks rolling inexorably on as Orff’s music thunders from the soundtrack.  The work was, thus, used as a kind of sonic Volkswagen (“car for the people”), which went on sale in Germany the following year. 

Orff was not a Nazi, but he was cozy with them, even composing music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to replace the score by the Jewish Felix Mendelssohn.  Orff also refused to use his Nazi influence to save the life of his friend Karl Huber, founder of “The White Rose” resistance movement.  After WWII, however, when the Allies questioned prominent Germans to determine their Nazi involvement, Orff lied and claimed that he and Huber had been co-founders of the resistance.

Today, after Handel’s Messiah and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Carmina Burana is the most often-performed work in the repertoire for chorus and orchestra.  Viewed apart from its original political associations, the work can be seen as a force in its own right, a force now used simply, as New Yorker critic Alex Ross put it, to rouse “primitive, unreflective enthusiasm.”  This raw, populist power guarantees a sure-fire hit, and not just in the concert hall.  Carmina Burana also continues to be heard in movies, television shows, video games, football games, car races, rock concerts and figure skating routines, plus countless commercials for mass-market products ranging from chocolate, soft drinks and beer to cosmetics, fast-food chains and juvenile action heroes.

Robert Xavier Rodríguez has served as Composer-in-Residence for the Dallas Symphony and the San Antonio Symphony.  He holds an Endowed Chair in Art and Aesthetic Studies and is University Professor and Director of the Musica Nova ensemble at the University of Texas at Dallas. His 131 compositions are published by G. Schirmer.