Program Notes for Janice Carissa by Philip Carlsen

Notes on the Program

Notes written and voiced by Philip Carlsen

LISTEN to these program notes on Youtube

LISTEN to these program notes on Spotify


Enrique Granados: Maiden and the Nightingale  

The three great Spanish composers who came of age around the turn of the last century are principally known for works celebrating their national heritage that they wrote in the decade before World War I: Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia (1905-1909), Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1909-1916), and Enrique Granados’s Goyescas (1911). It is no surprise that each of these men had studied with Felip Pedrell, a firm believer that Spanish composers should draw on Spanish folk sources for their music.

Granados’s Goyescas is a suite of six piano pieces inspired by drawings of Goya that poked gentle fun at the courting rituals of bourgeois ladies and dandies, the Majos of the suite’s subtitle, “Los Majos Enamorados” (the gallants in love).  Each movement has its own title, suggesting the stages of a courtship. The fourth one, which we hear today, is a woman’s lament at the loss of her lover. A nightingale shares her sorrow, his voice flitting through the piano’s rich ornamentation, as well as breaking into a showy cadenza at the end. Granados’s principal theme is drawn from a folksong whose lyrics include the lines “Why does the nightingale sing his harmonious song in shadows? … Does perhaps his breast bear such hidden pain that he hopes to find relief in the shade, sadly singing love songs?”

Alexander Scriabin: Sonata No. 3  

Like Chopin, the composer he emulated perhaps more than any other, Scriabin focused almost entirely on the piano, writing in many of the same genres that Chopin favored—preludes, mazurkas, nocturnes, impromptus, etudes, etc.—further exploring the innovations of the earlier master in harmony, technique, and expression. Although Scriabin eventually moved closer to atonality and mysticism, his third piano sonata (out of ten) is still rooted in the Romantic tradition exemplified by Chopin. The four movements follow the standard progression, but Scriabin establishes connections between them by bringing back the main theme of the first movement at the end of the andante, and then later transforms the gentle andante theme into a majestic restatement in the last movement. A few years later, perhaps in line with the evolving mysticism of his philosophy, Scriabin added descriptions that identified these four movements as “States of the Soul”: (1) “the soul, free and wild …” (2) “apparent momentary and illusory respite …” (3) “… illusions of a delicate dream” (4) “From the depth of being rises the fearsome voice of creative man … but he plunges, temporarily defeated, into the abyss of non-being.”

Frederic Rzewski: Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues  

The modern concert grand piano is a technological marvel, a precisely calibrated machine, perfected with the tools and materials and ingenuity of the industrial age. In that sense, it is the ideal instrument to conjure up the overwhelming impact of a textile mill in full roar, especially in the hands and imagination of Fred Rzewski, a virtuoso composer/performer who knew the piano’s capabilities as well as anyone. The opening of his Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, played softly in the piano’s bottom octave, establishes the steady shuttle rhythm of massive rumbling looms. The pianist’s hands robotically alternate, first single notes, then clusters played by the palms, pitch to noise, back and forth like clockwork every twelve beats, weaving waves of sound rather than bolts of cloth. The clusters expand, now played by the forearms. The noise builds. Finally, when it seems it can get no more intense, it contracts and settles into a driving, repetitive riff in the left hand.

For the first time, we hear the tune of the title. It’s a song that originated in Winnsboro, South Carolina, where the millworkers had taken the “Alcoholic Blues,” first recorded in 1919, and fitted it out with new words about their hardhearted bosses and the drudgery of the work, lightening their burden a bit by singing “I got the blues, I got the blues, I got the Winnsboro Cotton Mill blues.” Rzewski gives the song two settings in this piece, each accompanied by the relentless rhythms of the mill. In between is a ruminative blues passage, sounding improvised (although fully written out in the score), as if the workers are taking their break outside under a shade tree, shooting the breeze, dreaming about better times. Then it’s back to work.

Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues is the last piece in Rzewski’s Four North American Ballads, a suite originally commissioned by Paul Jacobs and recorded by him in 1980.

Johannes Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 3 

One day in the fall of 1853, in the midst of an extended walking tour along the Rhine River, the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms showed up at the door of Robert and Clara Schumann’s house in Düsseldorf. In his satchel were two piano sonatas, a scherzo, a collection of songs, and other works. Brahms’s friend, the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim, had written to the Schumanns previously, priming them for the arrival of this young virtuoso, but the experience of actually meeting him in person and hearing him play his compositions struck them like a thunderbolt. They invited him to stay with them. Every day was filled with music and lively discussion. Within a month, Robert publicly proclaimed in a journal article that a new musical genius had arrived on the scene. He arranged for his publisher to bring out the first editions of Brahms’s music. Fired up by the enthusiasm of his hosts, Brahms quickly finished writing his third sonata in F minor, a piece he had begun earlier.

It was to be the last of his solo sonatas, a monumental work in five movements, dramatic in its quick shifts of emotion, its passions, allusions, memories. The powerful opening proclamation, spanning practically the entire keyboard, is answered immediately with a pianissimo passage that recasts the four-note motif we’ve just heard into a simple tune. The music modulates to A-flat major for the second theme, and the motif becomes now an accompanimental figure. Thus Brahms masterfully demonstrates the lessons of Beethoven and Bach about building large musical structures from just a few materials. The andante second movement, filled with yearning melodies, is headed with a poetic epigraph about two lovers embracing in the moonlight. It is followed by a virtuosic scherzo. After that movement, Brahms postpones going directly to the finale, inserting instead an intermezzo labeled “Rückblick” (reminiscence), a recollection of the love songs from the Andante with, in the accompaniment, a nod to Beethoven and his rhythmic motif from the Fifth Symphony. The Finale begins in F minor, as expected, but F major is always close at hand. When that key first appears, it provides Brahms an opportunity to pay tribute in notes to his dear friend Joachim, whose personal motto was F-A-E, standing for frei aber einsam, “free but lonely.”


Janice Carissa performs Saturday, December 10, 2022 at 3PM at Hannaford Hall on the USM Campus in Portland.
Click here for information and tickets.