The legacy of Ottorino Respighi many works that revived Italian music from past eras. Among them are the three suites Antiche arie e danze per liuto (Ancient Airs and Dances for Lute, 1917, 1923 and 1931). They comprise 16th-17th century works for lute freely adapted for strings. The third suite also exists in a version for string quartet. It opens with the piece Italiana by an unknown composer of the late 16th century – even, measured, passionless and relatively lifeless – this is how the ideal of the “early style” was seen in the time of Respighi. The court (or courtly) Aria by the Burgundian Jean-Baptiste Besard is an entire suite of short pieces that are different in character. The anonymous Sicilienne is melancholy, like almost every Sicilienne of the 20th century, while the final Passacaglia by Count Ludovico Roncalli (who, in fact, composed it not for the lute but for the guitar) is predictably triumphant. Judging by the four-note chords given initially to the violins and subsequently to all the other strings, in his free arrangement Respighi was clearly imitating Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous Chaconne for solo violin.
Felix Mendelssohn composed five symphonies for full orchestra and thirteen for string orchestra. He finished the score of his Ninth Symphony for String Orchestra on 12 March 1823, at the age of just fourteen. For his early maturity and the surprising effortlessness with which he wrote, Mendelssohn is not infrequently compared with Mozart. The first movement of the Ninth, with the exception of the pathétique introduction, is restrained in exactly Mozart’s style and the entire symphony is rich in polyphonic techniques, as if Mendelssohn were aspiring to surpass Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.
In the second movement of the symphony the young composer uses modest means and, with their assistance, creates a masterful canvas – as is well known, limitations frequently stimulate inspiration...
He contrived to split the small orchestra in two: the first section in major key and the reprise are performed by the violins, the central section (a fugato in minor) by the violas, cellos and double basses. Such powerful contrasts for strings alone are rarely to be found in music.
The third movement is a hunting scherzo (the first such in the music of Mendelssohn, the composer-to-be of the famous scherzo in the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The pastorale trio contains a theme from a Swiss song that Mendelssohn heard while travelling with his parents in Switzerland: because of this fact, the Ninth Symphony is sometimes referred to as the Swiss.
Almost the entire finale of the String Symphony in C Major, including the swift and strident coda, flows in C minor (in all probability following the example of Haydn’s Emperor quartet). This movement is unique for its polyphonic nature. Typically, a composer wishing to employ fugato in sonata form places it in the development, while Mendelssohn gave the symphony’s final movement three (!) fugatos – in the exposition, the development and the reprise. Which does not at all mean that his Ninth is a dry and academic exercise in composition.
Astor Piazzolla’s suite Cuatro estaciones porteñas, also known as The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, emerged due to a happy combination of circumstances. First to appear was Verano porteño (Buenos Aires Summer) in 1965 for a performance based on Alberto Muñoz’ play Golden Hair. From 1969–1970 Piazzolla gradually added Otoño (Autumn), Primavera (Spring) and the famous Invierno (Winter). In the southern hemisphere the four seasons are reversed: winters are hot and the summers rather cool. Spring and autumn are expressed without great vividness, and in any case the seasons in Argentina are not so very different from each other as the twelve months of the year are in St Petersburg – and in the music of Tchaikovsky. And yet in Russia Piazzolla’s Cuatro estaciones porteñas have proved incredibly popular. These tangos – at times melancholic and at times aggressive – are full of romance. They have a hero, powerful emotions and a sense of free improvisation – everything as in the gypsy tradition. Moreover, Piazzolla’s works have a healthy “reserve of strength” and a complex technique of composition, a blend of classicism and jazz. Piazzolla wrote these tangos for his own quintet, though they are played by highly diverse ensembles – but typically the leading instruments are the strings. In their day, the “new tango” style was regarded in the composer’s homeland with hostility. Today the tango and the bandoneon (a kind of concertina with which Piazzolla travelled the entire world) have become symbols of Argentina, leaving the Gauchos, ponchos and pampas grass in the shade.