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About this Piece

For Yo-Yo Ma, “music lives through relationships: among performers, between students and teachers, across generations.” Different kinds of interpersonal, historical, and creative partnerships link the pieces he has assembled into the “suite” of this program. The strongest and most obvious exists between Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979) and Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924). Boulanger was only 14 when she began studying with Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire in 1901. What she admired in him was “a sense of dignity and a vision of life that was modest, tranquil and detached…. He often had the air of a dreamer, of being somewhere else: we adored him…”

Fauré had composed the two pieces on this program long before he met Boulanger. Written “for violin (or cello) and piano,” the Berceuse, Op. 16 (1878–79), has been arranged for many other combinations of instruments. To Fauré’s surprise, this charming small lullaby in D major (marked allegretto moderato), to which he attached little importance, achieved an immediate and lasting success and was one of his first published works.

Fauré wrote numerous other pieces for cello, including the popular Sicilienne, Op. 78, two sonatas for cello and piano, and Papillon, Op. 77 (1884). Composed at his publisher’s request for a “brilliant showpiece,” Papillon is in straightforward A-B-A form (two fast outer movements with a lyrical middle section) and gives the cellist ample opportunity to exhibit virtuosic skill.

Fauré’s student Nadia Boulanger became much better known as an influential teacher—among her many pupils were Aaron Copland and Philip Glass—than as a composer. Songs make up most of her own small musical œuvre, including Cantique de sœur Béatrice, set to verses of the symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck (arranged here for cello and piano). One of 10 songs from her collection of Mélodies, Cantique is a luminous tribute to the power of love, with a glowing solo line soaring above a spare accompaniment, in F major. The song’s text ends: “And if love gets lost/On the paths of the earth/Its tears will find me/And not go astray.”

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) was Fauré’s near contemporary, but followed a very different musical path. Many of his compositions used folk texts and songs of Bohemia and Moravia, including the Gypsy Songs, Op. 55 (1880), completed soon after his hugely successful Slavonic Dances. Adapted from folk models, these songs adopt what has been called a “Slavonic cabaret style,” characterized by rubato, chromatic accompaniment, cross rhythms, and melancholy moods. The cycle’s fourth song, “Songs My Mother Taught Me” (“Když mne stará matka zpívat učívala”), a touchingly sentimental tribute to the continuity of Roma culture through generations, became an immediate and enduring international hit. Originally written for tenor voice, in slow waltz time contrasting 2/4 meter in the solo part with 6/8 in the accompaniment, it has been arranged for various solo instruments with piano.

Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) takes us to an entirely different time, place, and style. In autumn 1979, one of Pärt’s pieces was scheduled to be performed at the Moscow Conservatory. But just a few days before the performance, Pärt’s name and the piece’s title—Tabula rasa—were crudely blotted out on posters announcing the concert. The reason, as I subsequently learned from Moscow friends, was simple: Pärt had just made public his intention to emigrate abroad. Like other Soviet artists before him who had chosen or been forced to emigrate, Pärt became an instant non-person. Until glasnost and the collapse of the USSR more than 10 years later, his name was struck from the official history of Soviet music. Meanwhile, his “minimalist” music became increasingly popular with audiences elsewhere. Today, he is considered one of the world’s most important living composers.

The last composition Pärt completed before leaving Estonia was Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror), now one of his best-known and frequently performed works. Violinist Vladimir Spivakov commissioned it and gave the first performance at the Moscow Conservatory in December, 1978. In other versions, the violin in this hypnotic duet with piano has been replaced by cello and various solo instruments. A prime example of Pärt’s “tintinnabuli style,” in which a bell-like (tintinnabular) accompaniment intertwines with a spare melodic voice, Spiegel im Spiegel grows out of the piano’s repeated F-major triads, with the cello playing up and down in scales centered around A. The complex and constantly changing relationship between the two lines—progressing with mathematical precision despite the apparent simplicity—produces the illusion of infinite mirroring, as the piano and cello parts imitate and reflect each other. Spiegel im Spiegel has found a wide audience through film and television, and even showed up prominently on the third season of Ted Lasso.

Brazilian composer and instrumentalist Sérgio Assad (b. 1952) has worked with Yo-Yo Ma on numerous projects, both live and recorded. One of their most successful collaborations was on the seductive and wistful Menino (“Little Child”) (2003), which Assad has described simply as “a song about a child, the child we all have inside ourselves.”

—Harlow Robinson