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Toccata concertante

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Irving Fine
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Midori, violin, performs Bartók Oct. 11 - 13, 2007
© Richard Freed
Untitled Document

Remembering Forgotten Americans
By Leonard Slatkin
When I was a young boy my house was filled with music—not just the so-called classics, but sounds from almost any genre you could name in the 1950s. Most of the composers represented were well known, but many were not. In this week's concerts the NSO presents an important work by one such composer. I came to Irving Fine's music by way of a recording of some of his choral music. He had set several sections of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and I especially enjoyed his treatment of "Father William." I looked him up in a music catalogue and discovered he had composed some orchestral works as well. Very early in my conducting career, I performed Fine's Diversions for Orchestra during my first season as music director of the New York Youth Symphony. It is a delightful piece, perfect for young performers and young listeners; I later did it in children's concerts in St. Louis. Fine died prematurely, at age 47, and did not leave a large number of works. His last great work, though, is a very substantial symphony that shows his command of his craft — as does the piece we are performing this week. The Toccata concertante is a ten-minute work that clearly owes much to Stravinsky in its harmonic and rhythmic schemes; but it is specifically the Stravinsky of neo-classicism that drew this response from Fine, whose orchestration is always brilliant and colorful. I have performed this work with several orchestras, both here in America and abroad, and it has always been well received. But it does remind me that there are other "lost" composers out there who deserve a better fate. Harold Shapero, Arthur Berger, Benjamin Lees and Paul Creston are among those who come to mind. These musicians contributed steadily to the growth of music in our country. I hope some enterprising conductors will take a look at their music. On my own part, I will definitely be reassessing it over the next few years.

Program Notes on Toccata concertante
By Richard Freed
The Toccata concertante, composed in 1947, was given its premiere on October 22 of the following year by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score, dedicated to Koussevitzky, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, piano, and strings. Duration, 11 minutes.

Irving Fine, a lifelong Bostonian, was a member of a remarkable group of musical friends, all of whom were given boosts in their careers as protégés of Serge Koussevitzky, the Russian-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949 and founder of the Tanglewood Festival and School in the Berkshires. The other members of the group were Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss (like Bernstein a composer, conductor and pianist) and the composer Harold Shapero. Fine studied with Walter Piston and Edward Burlingame Hill at Harvard, and subsequently with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He also had conducting lessons from Koussevitzky, and he became active as a pedagogue himself, teaching first at Harvard and later at Brandeis University, with intervals of work and further study in Europe, and he served on the faculty at Tanglewood from 1946 to 1957.

The cantata Choral New Yorker,based on poems from the magazine, brought Fine his first large-scale recognition in 1944. Four years later Koussevitzky introduced the present work, and in 1955 Robert Whitney conducted the Louisville Orchestra in the premiere of the Serious Song, a lament for string orchestra, which he had commissioned and which was to become one of Fine&';s best-known compositions. Fine&';s most ambitious orchestral works, the Symphony (1962), commissioned by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was given its premiere by them in March of that year, and five months later it was performed by the same orchestra at Tanglewood, with Fine himself conducting (stepping in on short notice when Munch became ill), just eleven days before his death, which was totally unexpected and was regarded as a major loss to American music.

The Symphony that was Fine&';s unplanned valedictory work was the capstone in a fairly small list of works for orchestra. For the Toccata concertante, which was the earliest of them, the composer provided the following note in the score.

The word toccata is commonly used to describe improvisatory display pieces for keyboard instruments. It has also been used in connection with concerted music of a fanfare-like character. It is in this latter sense that I have used the term. In writing this piece, I was aware of a certain affinity with the energetic music of the Baroque concertos, hence the qualifying adjective concertante. Moreover, this adjective seemed particularly appropriate because of the soloistic nature of much of the orchestration, especially in the second theme group and closing sections of the exposition and recapitulation.

The piece is roughly in sonata form. There is a short, fanfare-like introduction containing two motives that generate most of the subsequent thematic material. The following exposition contains a first section that makes prominent use of an ostinato and is rather indeterminate in tonality. In this section the thematic material is chiefly entrusted to solo wind instruments supported by string accompaniment. The whole of the exposition is concluded by additional woodwind dialogue and scattered references to some of the preceding material.

There are several episodes in the development, one of the most prominent being a fugato announced by the clarinets and based on the opening ostinato. There is no break between the development and recapitulation, the return of the fast material commencing at the climax of the development. The second and closing sections of the exposition are recapitulated in the main tonality without significant changes except for a few in instrumentation and texture. The piece is rounded off by an extended coda.
                                                                                                                               -IRVING FINE