Mission: Impossible Theme
notes by Katherine Baber
First broadcast: September 17, 1966.
Lalo Schifrin is a border-crossing musician in several senses. Raised in Argentina, where he returned in the 1950s to lead his own big band, he was educated at the highly traditional Paris Conservatory before setting out on his career as a jazz pianist and arranger, performing and recording all over Europe. It was an invitation from Dizzy Gillespie that brought him to the United States, where he also turned his talents to film and television scores and conducting. It seems only fitting that someone equally comfortable with the London Philharmonic or an international jazz festival, as at home in Buenos Aires as he is in Los Angeles, should be surrounded on tonight’s program by his fellow cosmopolitans.
Although George Frideric Handel’s English was notoriously poor, he had French, Italian, and his native German to fall back on. Born in Halle, he spent his early career shuttling between Hamburg, Hanover, Düsseldorf, Florence, Rome, and Venice, before settling more or less in London. His Concerto Grosso in D major, op. 6 no. 5, is a travelogue of sorts, blending elements of diverse Continental styles in an effort to suit the cosmopolitan tastes of the London public. Written between his Italian operas for the King’s Theatre and Covent Garden and his English oratorios, this smaller work for string orchestra opens nonetheless in a grand fashion. The stately rhythms, thickly ornamented with trills and tirades (flourishes), ground the overture in the French operatic tradition. The opening bugle call from the first violin, however, is Handel’s own humorous touch. The second and fourth movements both gesture toward the fugue, showing a particularly German preoccupation with counterpoint, although the lightness of the Allegro and the lyricism of the Largo are more Italianate in character. The triple meter, balanced phrases, and two-part form of the Presto seem to signify the courante, although in its quicker Italian version rather than the more restrained French dance. Likewise, the politesse of the minuet is offset by a walking bass line that sounds more like Corelli than Couperin. Here is Handel’s career in miniature, a careful balance of nationalities.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D major, the “London,” was the last of twelve symphonies he wrote for English audiences, and while there is no evidence that he intended it to be his last, it is a fitting capstone to the symphonic tradition he helped to build. When he was finally freed from his contract with the princely family of Esterházy at the age of 59, Haydn immediately set out for London at the invitation of German violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon. Coming from a relative backwater, near what is still a rural area of the Austrian-Hungarian border, Haydn was aware of the international taste of London audiences and “interested in surprising the public with something new.” Now with an orchestra twice the size of his old one at Esterháza, he made good on his promise with the dynamic tomfoolery of the Symphony no. 94, the “Surprise,” which prompted delighted gasps. The response to the oddity of the Symphony no. 95 in C minor, on the other hand, was decidedly unenthusiastic. The “London” Symphony is more monumental, although not without Haydn’s characteristic wit, and it more than earned its acclaim.
The solemn proclamations on D and F of the Adagio announce the two harmonic poles of the symphony, but since 18th-century brass instruments could only play in D, there is a built-in hierarchy to this fanfare. Haydn decided to accentuate this harmonic difference with a dramatic dynamic contrast between fortissimo and pianissimo. The beginning of the Allegro is deceptively simple, with its singing melody in the violins. As the movement goes on, Haydn draws out all of its motivic and harmonic possibilities. Nearly all of the material in the rest of the exposition of this sonata form is derived from some aspect of the first theme—a degree of motivic integration that would not be heard again until Beethoven’s later symphonies. The Andante second movement is moderate rather than truly slow, with a gracious, choreographic sensibility that is typical of Haydn. The clever combination of a series of variations with the two-part binary form typical of a dance shows the balance of clarity and complexity that makes Haydn’s music appealing to experts and novices alike. The third movement turns the long established form of the minuet and trio on its head. Normally graceful, the minuet seems flat-footed in places and a little rough around the edges for a courtly dance. On the other hand, the trio is an uncommonly sophisticated version of the Ländler, usually a rustic dance. The spirited finale traipses along with a contredanse that hinges on a radically simple theme—just a melody over a tonic drone, better suited to bagpipes than London’s prestigious orchestras. The second theme recalls Haydn’s own Symphony no. 100, the “Military,” which shared the program with the premiere of the “London.” But the virtuosic development of this unusual sonata form finale, with its even more unusual double development, depends on Haydn’s cheeky bagpipes—the intricate fugato of the first development and the detour into darker minor mode harmonies in the second development both focus on the first theme. This finale, together with the finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, set an ambitious standard for the symphony of the future, and today’s composers still feel the weight of Haydn’s legacy. For instance, the Austrian government commissioned Lalo Schifrin to compose a work commemorating the second bicentennial of Joseph Haydn’s death—his “Elegy and Meditation” premiered in Eisenstadt, Austria (the seat of the Esterházy family) in 2009.
Ottorino Respighi spent more time in his home country of Italy than Handel or Haydn did in theirs, but he did travel to study with Rimsky-Korsakov in Saint Petersburg and Bruch in Berlin. However, his orchestral postcards from Rome—Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals—traveled even more widely than their author and remain internationally popular. Like the fascination with ancient Rome in his colorful tone poems, his Ancient Airs and Dances betrays him as a classicist among his modernist peers, like Alfredo Casella. His first internationally famous work, after all, had been an arrangement of Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna for voice and orchestra. The orchestral suite maintains the clarity of the lute pieces Respighi borrowed from Renaissance composers, known and unknown, including Simone Molinaro and Vincenzo Galilei (the father of Galileo). The style of each movement echoes its origin, whether in song (villanelle) or dance (balletto, gagliarda, and passo mezzo). Balancing his preference for expressive orchestration with his Renaissance source material, Respighi opts for a small ensemble with brilliant timbres.
Perhaps only Lalo Schifrin could outdo Respighi and his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, in terms of inventiveness and variety in orchestration. With his experience as both film composer and jazz arranger, Schifrin has developed perhaps the most colorful orchestral palette of any current composer. In terms of scoring for the screen, Schifrin’s deftness in handling a diversity of styles is unparalleled, from the Latin jazz of “Sol Madrid” (1968), to the funk elements of “Dirty Harry” (1971), to the “crime jazz” of Mission Impossible. Perhaps the best-known minute of music in history, the Mission Impossible theme song broke the mold that had been set in film noir soundtracks of the 1950s where jazz was associated with gritty urban landscapes. The syncopated ostinato in the low brass, with counterpoint from bongos and claves, the sinuous flute and crackling trumpets, the call and response brass arrangement, and the final stinger are all hallmarks of an “exotic” version of jazz that can be traced back to Les Baxter and Henry Mancini. The unusual 5/4 time signature, however, is all Schifrin’s own.