About the Program: Stephen Tharp
About this Piece
Stephen Tharp’s international prowess has led to appearances in the greatest halls of the world and for Pope Benedict XVI. He performs a program ranging from Baroque to present day, including original compositions and transcriptions of Handel, Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner.
The signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, ending the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), was a source of great pride for the British, who, in 1749, decided to celebrate with a grand fireworks display in London’s Green Park. For that occasion, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was engaged to compose music that would accompany the display. The Overture, in keeping with the popular style, features the alternation of a slow and majestic homophonic section with one that is livelier and more dance-like. Handel’s music was remembered long after the celebration in Green Park and received great acclaim for its dramatic, military style. The evening turned out cold and rainy. Several rockets misfired or went astray, causing injuries and even one death. And as a final insult, one of the pavilions expressly built for the occasion by the great Franco-Italian architect Giovanni Servandoni caught fire and burned to the ground.
Toward the end of his life, J.S. Bach (1685-1750) began compiling and revising organ works that he had composed years earlier, mostly while serving as organist to the Duke of Weimar. The so-called “Leipzig” Chorales are some of his finest chorale-based works, and the BWV 662, one of three settings of “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her’,” are among the best of the best. Its florid, luxurious melody in the highest voice clearly reflects the text “God Alone on High.” The manuscript for Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue is lost, but the work is believed to have been composed during the 1740s in Leipzig. In three broad sections, it is an extravagantly virtuosic work, both in terms of compositional technique but also demands on the performer.
With the Eroica, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) forever transformed the nature of the symphony. Initially titled “Bonaparte,” the work reflected Beethoven’s admiration for Napoleon—that is, until Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France in 1804. The declaration sent Beethoven into a rage. He erased Napoleon’s name from the score so violently that a sizable hole was left in the manuscript. The title was changed, and an inscription was added, “to celebrate the memory of a great man.” The scherzo is a type of movement that existed in other symphonic works, but in the Eroica, Beethoven elevates the genre from its original meaning of “joke” to something grander, more heroic. The trio, initiated by three horns, has been described as “a lively hunting tune suggestive of galloping horses.”
Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) “Ride of the Valkyries,” from the opera Die Walküre, became a stand-alone concert favorite long before its notorious appearance in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now. In Die Walküre, the music accompanies the arrival of the Valkyries, female warriors who are charged with retrieving the heroes fallen in battle in order to return them to Valhalla, the home of the gods. As is always the case with Wagner, the musical depiction is superb. The ascending arpeggio melody, with its distinctive rhythmic profile and alternation between major and minor, is both heroic and threatening.
Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was titular organist at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris from 1900 until his death. Vierne’s organ symphonies are large, impressive works on a symphonic scale and reflect Vierne’s post-Impressionistic harmonic style and emphasis on a large palette of organ sonorities. The Symphony No. 3 was composed in 1911 and dedicated to his student Marcel Dupré, with whom he had a famous falling-out over their respective status at Notre-Dame. Essentially in three parts, the opening and closing sections are soft, homophonic, and highly chromatic. An extended, meandering melody dominates the middle section. —Tom Neenan
The Variations on “Rouen” were commissioned by and dedicated to the brilliant American organist Stephen Tharp, who premiered the piece in September 2010 at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and then recorded it two weeks later at Saint-Sulpice in Paris. The tune is Tharp’s favorite and is actually an 18th-century French melody, which appeared in a book of chants found in Poitiers. Following an introduction and reharmonization using the chamade trumpets, there are seven variations using various colors and textures. The variations are meant to depict the gamut of human emotions, from anguish to ecstasy, joy and sorrow, and everything in between. The work’s musical language reveals influences of my musical heroes from France, including de Grigny, Franck, Vierne, Tournemire, Dupré, Alain, Messiaen, Langlais, and Cochereau. The final variation is a wild toccata ending on a glorious D-major chord. —George Baker