Camille Saint-Saëns’s gorgeously romantic Fifth Piano Concert, written while the composer lived in Luxor, forms the heart of this recital of music inspired by Egypt. Hear it performed in the composer’s own rapturous arrangement for two pianos. Also enjoy the atmospheric Canope, Claude Debussy’s musical response to funerary urns from the ancient Nile, and Anton Arensky’s charming Egyptian Nights, written for Russia’s Imperial Ballet. The concert concludes with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s spectacular Études-tableaux. This performance was presented at the Freer Gallery in 2017 in conjunction with the exhibition Divine Felines: Cats in Ancient Egypt.
Inspired by Egypt:
Katherine Chi and Dina Vainshtein, pianos
|Sonata in G Minor, K. 30, L. 499 (“Cat Fugue,” 1739)||0:00-5:15|
|“Canope” from Préludes, Book II (1910–13)||5:15-8:50|
|Très calme et doucement triste|
|Piano Concerto no. 5 in F Major, op. 103, “Egyptian” (1896)||9:10-38:25|
|Selections from Egyptian Nights, op. 50a (1900)||38:45-51:50|
|Danse d’Arsine et des esclaves|
|Charmeuse des serpents|
|Pas de deux (Tempo di valse)|
|Selections from the Etudes-Tableaux, op. 39 (1916–17)||52:08-1:18:35|
|No. 2 in A minor|
|No. 6 in A minor|
|No. 7 in C minor|
|No. 8 in D minor|
|No. 9 in D major|
Sonata in G Minor, K. 30, L. 499, “The Cat’s Fugue”
Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)
Born in Naples in the same year as Handel and Bach, Domenico Scarlatti was the son of the celebrated Italian opera composer Alessandro Scarlatti. A pupil of his father, Domenico held important positions in Naples and Rome, including that of maestro di cappella at the Vatican. In addition to his sacred music, he was known for his operas and the quality of his harpsichord playing, at which he bested Handel in a friendly contest in 1709. (Handel, however, was deemed superior at the organ.) Around 1719, Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal engaged Scarlatti as music master and moved to Lisbon. When she married the heir to the Spanish throne ten years later, Scarlatti accompanied her to Madrid. He spent the rest of his life there, helping to found the Spanish school of instrumental composition.
His works in Madrid were confined almost exclusively to instrumental music, notably some six hundred sonatas for harpsichord composed for Maria Barbara. These splendid pieces pioneered such keyboard techniques as crossing hands, runs in thirds and sixths, leaps wider than an octave, and rapid repeated notes. Though innovative in their musical style and expressive content, the sonatas were conservative in their use of the one-movement, binary dance form of the Baroque era. La Fugue du Chat (Cat’s Fugue), perhaps Scarlatti’s most famous piece, derives its name from the wide, irregular skips of the theme, intervals such as might be (and possibly were) produced by a feline excursion upon the keyboard.
“Canope” from Préludes, Book II
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Book II of the Préludes, the last of Debussy’s piano works except for his Études (1915), was composed between 1910 and 1913 and consists of twelve poetic paintings in tone. Canope is Debussy’s response to two funerary urns from the ancient Nile city of Canopus, a site that promoted the practice of burying the major organs of the deceased in so-called Canopic jars with the mummified body.
“The sound of the sea, the curve of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird enregister complex impressions within us,” Debussy told an interviewer in 1911, when he was at work on Book II of his Préludes. “Then suddenly, without any deliberate consent on our part, one of these memories issues forth to express itself in the language of music.” Debussy thus distilled the essence of musical Impressionism: the embodiment of a specific but evanescent experience in tone. With only rare exceptions (most notably the String Quartet of 1893 and the Études and three sonatas from the end of his life), his compositions are referential in both their titles and their contents, deriving inspiration and subjects from poetry, art, and nature. Though their generic appellation, which recalls the music of both Chopin and Bach, suggests abstraction rather than tone painting, Debussy’s 24 Préludes are quintessential examples of his ability to evoke moods, memories, and images that are, at once, too specific and too vague for mere words.
Piano Concerto no. 5 in F Major, op. 103, “Egyptian”
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
At the age of two, Camille Saint-Saëns climbed onto the piano bench and spent a large part of the rest of his life there. Before he was five, he played the piano part of a Beethoven violin sonata and prodigiously made his formal debut in 1846 at the tender age of ten. As a teenager, he became organist at the Church of Saint-Merry in Paris; five years later, he moved to the prestigious post at the Church of the Madeleine. His artistry (and later his compositions) gained the respect of Liszt, who performed and conducted several of Saint-Saëns’s important scores in Germany. He impressed even the redoubtable Wagner by playing Tristan und Isolde from memory. Saint-Saëns was so constantly in demand throughout his life as a pianist of his own and other composers’ works, especially those by Mozart and Beethoven, that he religiously practiced for two hours each morning, an activity he continued, literally, until the day he died.
To perform, of course, meant to tour, and travel became one of Saint-Saëns’s chief pastimes, appearing in venues worldwide, from Singapore to San Francisco. He tried to spend his winters in the baking sun and relative anonymity of Algiers, away from the drab weather of Paris. His fondness for North Africa twice carried him to Egypt, with each visit inspiring a work for piano and orchestra. His 1891 work Africa was based on traditional local songs; the Fifth Piano Concerto (“Egyptian”) was composed at Luxor in 1896, and the composer appeared as soloist in the premier in Paris later that year.
The F Major Piano Concerto, despite its pictorial and atmospheric effects, exhibits the formal clarity and emotional restraint that characterize Saint-Saëns’s music. In its form, harmony, orchestration, and texture, it is indebted to the classical models of Mozart, whom Saint-Saëns revered. The opening movement follows the traditional sonata-concerto structure, with a chordal main theme and a complementary, dancelike subordinate melody. “The second movement,” Saint-Saëns wrote, “takes us on a journey to the East and even, in one section, to the Far East. The G-major passage is a Nubian love song which I heard sung by the boatmen on the Nile as I went down the river in a dahabieh.”
The finale is a breathtaking tour de force of keyboard technique, proof that Saint-Saëns had lost none of his piano facility during the half-century of his performing career. Arthur Hervey, one of the composer’s early biographers, interpreted the incessant rhythmic motion of the finale as Saint-Saëns’s attempt “to describe his experiences on the sea voyage” home from Egypt. “A note of realism,” Hervey continues, “is introduced by the sound of the propeller, while the serenity of the voyage is interrupted by a short storm.” The real point of this music is its dazzling display in one of Saint-Saëns’s great, unsinkable exercises in virtuosity.
Selections from Egyptian Nights, op. 50a
Anton Arensky (1861–1906)
Anton Arensky composed Egyptian Nights, his only ballet, for a visit by Shah Khan Mirza of Persia to St. Petersburg in 1900, but neither its score nor its scenario was deemed suitable for that occasion, and the performance was cancelled. In 1908, two years after Arensky’s death, impresario Serge Diaghilev supplemented the score with pieces by other composers, had the choreographer Mikhail Fokine completely rework the story, and presented the revised ballet at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater on March 22. Egyptian Nights has never entered the international dance repertoire, but parts of Arensky’s ballet are known in the form of this seven-movement concert suite (op. 50a) extracted from the score.
The plot tried to capitalize on the nineteenth-century Russian fascination with Cleopatra, which allowed Arensky to include several melodies he had discovered in recent studies of Egyptian music, history, and customs. The scenario, set at Cleopatra’s court, tells of Berenice and Amoun, her betrothed who himself becomes enamored of the queen. In a divertissement, various dances of Arsinoe, slaves, Jewish girls, and Ghazis—as well as a snake charmer—entertain Cleopatra before the Roman general Mark Antony sweeps her away on a boat garlanded with roses. After Cleopatra’s departure, Amoun recognizes his folly and reconciles with Berenice.
Arensky was one of the many talented musical figures who came to prominence during the closing decades of imperial Russia. His first music lessons were with his parents—his father was a physician in Novgorod and a highly accomplished amateur cellist; his mother was an excellent pianist—and he was composing songs and piano pieces by the time he was nine. After the family moved to St. Petersburg, then the cultural capital of Russia, young Arensky studied composition privately before entering the city’s conservatory in 1879 as a student of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The composer thought so highly of his protégé’s abilities that he entrusted him with preparing part of the vocal score for his opera The Snow Maiden while Arensky was still in school.
After graduating with honors in 1882, Arensky was immediately engaged as a teacher of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory, where his pupils came to include Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Glière. He not only served as director of the Russian Choral Society (1888–95) and as guest conductor of symphony concerts, but he was also appointed to the council of the Synodal School of Church Music in Moscow (1889–93). Arensky enjoyed success with the 1891 premiere of his first opera, A Dream on the Volga, and three years later he was appointed director of the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg. After it was discovered that he was suffering from tuberculosis, Arensky retired in 1901 with a handsome pension and devoted the rest of his brief life to composing and appearing as pianist and conductor in concerts in Russia and abroad. He died at a sanitarium in Terioki, Finland, in 1906 at the age of forty-four.
Selections from Études Tableaux, op. 39
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
Sergei Rachmaninoff had little use for cinematic programs as the basis for his music, but he was given to receiving inspiration from some particular external stimulus, a picture or a poem, perhaps, but then usually concealing it from the public. The title of his two sets of Études Tableaux, composed in 1911 (op. 33) and 1917 (op. 39), seems to represent this kind of extra-musical motivation implanted in the genre of the virtuoso keyboard study. The op. 39 set, composed just before Rachmaninoff was forced to leave his native Russia in 1917 because the political turmoil had made life difficult for those of his aristocratic class, is more dramatic in character and concentrated in intensity than the earlier op. 33 Études—eight of the nine are in minor tonalities.
When Ottorino Respighi was arranging several of the Études Tableaux for orchestra in 1930 at the behest of the Russian conductor Sergei Koussevitzky, Rachmaninoff provided the Italian composer with descriptions of the individual movements. The Étude Tableau in A minor (op. 39, no. 2), he said, “represents the Sea and Seagulls. (This program was suggested by Mme. Rachmaninoff.) The Étude in A minor, op. 39, no. 6, had been inspired by the tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. The Étude no. 7 in C minor is a Funeral March. The initial theme is a march. The other theme represents the singing of a choir. Commencing with the passage in sixteenth notes, a fine rain is suggested, incessant and hopeless. The movement develops, culminating in the chimes of a church. The end returns to the first theme, the march.” The Étude in D minor, op. 39, no. 8, begins in a rhapsodic, almost dreamy, mood but becomes more insistent as it unfolds before returning briefly to its wistful state for the close. Rachmaninoff noted that the Étude in D major, op. 39, no. 9, is “in the nature of an Oriental March.”
- Richard E. Rodda, PhD
Katherine Chi, piano, is firmly established as one of Canada’s most sought-after pianists, having performed throughout Europe and North America to great acclaim. While hailed for her interpretations of Mozart, she is also acclaimed for performances of major romantic and twentieth-century concertos. Recent engagement highlights include performances of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Symphony Nova Scotia, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C Minor with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Noted for the breadth of her repertoire, Chi has also performed in recitals with Canada’s Chamber Music Kelowna, Honens International Piano Foundation, Maple Ridge Music Society, and the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival (in a duo recital with Ingrid Fliter).
Dina Vainshtein, piano, earned degrees from the Gnesin Institute of Music in Moscow, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the New England Conservatory of Music. At the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow (1998), she won a special prize for Best Collaboration. She also won prizes at the Schubert and Modern Music International Competition in Austria (1997) and the All-Union Russian Piano Competition (1993). She has performed at Alice Tully Hall and Weill Hall in New York City, Jordan Hall in Boston, and the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Vainshtein has also appeared at the Ravinia Festival, Caramoor Festival, Music Academy of the West (Santa Barbara), Meadowmount, and the Heifetz International Music Institute. She has performed as a soloist with I Musici de Montreal and as a guest artist with the Borromeo String Quartet.
Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt
October 14, 2017–January 15, 2018
Cats’ personalities have made them Internet stars today. In ancient Egypt, cats were associated with divinities, as revealed in Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt. Cat coffins and representations of the cat-headed goddess Bastet are among the extraordinary objects that reveal felines’ critical role in ancient Egyptian religious, social, and political life. Dating from the Middle Kingdom to the Byzantine period, the nearly seventy works in this exhibition included statues, amulets, and other luxury items decorated with feline features that enjoyed special status among Egyptians. The exhibition, organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, also dedicated a small section to cats’ canine counterparts. This exhibition was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and generously supported by Jacqueline Badger Mars and Mars Petcare.
The podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by SuMo Productions. Web design by Ryan King, with additional web production by Torie Castiello Ketcham and Gio Camozzi. Copy editing by Nancy Eickel. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performance at the Freer Gallery.
The exhibition Divine Felines: Cats in Ancient Egypt was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and generously supported by Jacqueline Badger Mars and Mars Petcare.
This performance was presented as part of the twenty-fourth season of Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series, which was established in memory of Dr. Eugene Meyer III and Mary Adelaide Bradley Meyer. It is generously supported by Elizabeth E. Meyer, E. Bradley Meyer, the New York Community Trust—The Island Fund, the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series Endowment, and numerous generous supporters.