Overture to Benvenuto Cellini
Hector Berlioz was born in La Côte-Saint-André, France in 1803 and died in Paris in 1869. He composed his first opera, Benvenuto Cellini in 1834-1837, and it was first given in 1838 by the Paris Opera under the direction of François Habeneck. The score of the Overture calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.
The premiere of Berlioz' first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was a flop. The audience loved the Overture, Berlioz said, "but the rest was hissed with admirable energy and unanimity." The proto-romantic composer was getting used to this: he was ahead of his time, and he knew it.
Some say that Berlioz found a kindred spirit in Cellini, the sixteenth-century Florentine sculptor, goldsmith, musician, and heroic military man. He certainly saw himself as an artist-hero. Cellini's Memoires inspired the opera and some of Berlioz' most daring writing.
The Overture begins with an explosion of sound, an expression, no doubt, of Cellini's fiery personality. The slow pizzicato section that follows comes from the opera itself, where the Cardinal gives Cellini absolution in return for the artist's casting of the stature of Perseus. Other bits from the opera ensue, including a grand love theme. As the Overture reaches a climax, the Cardinal's theme returns and the piece comes to a noisy close.
Benvenuto Cellini had a rocky first reception, and has since been only rarely revived. But the Overture, then as now, was an audience favorite, and it remains solidly in the orchestral repertory. This isn't so unusual when you consider Berlioz' unique capacity to delight and enrage his audience in the same concert program. Not everyone could cope with his angular melodies, jolting rhythms, forbidden harmonies, and hyperbolic passion. But those are the very qualities that make him sound so fresh—and fun—today.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Concerto for Piano & Orchestra No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia, in 1840 and died in St. Petersburg in 1893. He completed this concerto in 1875 and the work was first performed by Hans von Bülow, piano, and conductor B. J. Lang with a freelance orchestra in Boston the same year. The concerto is scored for solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
When Tchaikovsky completed his First Piano Concerto in December of 1875, he wanted to play it for a piano virtuoso—which he was not—to see if any parts of it "might be ineffective, impracticable, and ungrateful" in the piano writing. "I needed a severe but at the same time friendly critic to point out just these external blemishes."
The natural choice for such advice was Nicolai Rubinstein, the director of the Moscow Conservatory and a renowned pianist, conductor, and teacher. He had conducted the premieres of several of Tchaikovsky's orchestral works, and he was also the work's intended soloist and dedicatee.
So it was that on Christmas eve Tchaikovsky played the work for Rubinstein on the piano in one of the Conservatory's classrooms. Tchaikovsky later wrote: "I played the first movement. Not a single word, not a single comment! If you knew how stupid and intolerable the situation of a man is who cooks and sets a meal before a friend, a meal the friend then proceeds to eat—in silence! I summoned all my patience and played through to the end. Still silence. I stood up and asked, 'Well?'
"Then a torrent poured from Nicolai Gregorievich's mouth, gentle to begin with, but growing more and more into the sound and fury of Jupiter. My concerto, it turned out, was worthless and unplayable—passages so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written as to be beyond rescue—the music itself was bad, vulgar—only two or three pages were worth preserving—the rest must be thrown out or completely rewritten. An independent witness in the room might have concluded that I was a maniac, an untalented, senseless hack who had come to submit his rubbish to an eminent musician.
"I was not just astounded but outraged by the whole scene. I left the room without a word and went upstairs: in my agitation and rage I could not have said a thing. Presently Rubinstein joined me and, seeing how upset I was, asked me into one of the other rooms. There he repeated that my concerto was impossible and said that if I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honor of playing this thing of mine at his concert. 'I shall not alter a single note,' I replied, 'I shall publish the work exactly as it stands!' And this I did."
As it turned out, both Nicolai Gregorievich and Piotr Ilyich were wrong.
Whether or not the concerto is vulgar is best left to others; it certainly is not "worthless and unplayable." Within a short time, Rubinstein changed his mind about the concerto, and eventually became one of its best advocates. As for Tchaikovsky, he didn't change a single note: he changed lots of them, through several revisions, mostly intended to make the piano part more "grateful."
Since this fantastic story occurred, the piece has become, as everyone knows, the most popular piano concerto ever written. The introduction to the first movement has become one of the single most widely-recognized passages of classical music, right behind the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth. And not just because it leads off most of those late-night television commercials for the "100 Greatest Classical Melodies."
This opening is sheer genius. The stentorian horn calls are punctuated by massive orchestral chords. The piano enters with thunderous, eight-octave-wide arpeggios. We soon realize that, for now, the piano is playing an accompaniment to a rich, opulent melody in the strings' lower registers. The piano picks up this tune and plays with it in a way that seems so right.
The irony of it all is that this remarkable device, this unforgettable tune, is part of the first movement's introduction, and is never heard from again! This bothers some people, but it is easy to let it pass when what follows is so incredibly inventive, so endlessly melodic. Listen for the "real" main theme of the first movement, which Tchaikovsky took from a common beggar's tune. Listen for how Tchaikovsky incorporates a "scherzo" into the second movement. And enjoy the bumptious Ukrainian folk song that forms the basis of the last movement. We may "eat in silence," as Tchaikovsky said, but there's plenty of time for praise at the end.
Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60
Antonín Dvořák was born in Mühlhausen, Bohemia in 1841 and died in Prague in 1904. He composed this work in 1880, and it was first performed by the Prague Philharmonic under the direction of Adolf Čech the following year. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.
Dvořák originally composed this symphony for the Vienna Philharmonic and its director, Hans Richter, who had performed his Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3 in 1879 with some success. Richter had been delighted by the work and had asked Dvořák for a symphony for the following season. Dvořák happily complied—Vienna was the musical capital of the world—but at this point Richter started making excuses. His mother had just died; his wife was about to have a baby; his other children were sick; and besides, the Philharmonic players were overworked. Those were the good reasons, but Dvořák eventually learned the real reason: that the players of the Philharmonic—then, as now, that most conservative of orchestras—had objected to performing works by a little-known Czech composer two seasons in a row. Undaunted (and with the score still dedicated to Richter), Dvořák gave the premiere to his friend Adolf Čech and the Prague Philharmonic.
The first theme of the first movement grows from two notes, then three, then extended by the violins into a phrase leading to a grand statement based on those first two notes. The second theme is a genteel melody heard in the horns and cellos, extended by a solo oboe. The transition to the development is wonderfully mysterious and the development itself unique in its long-sustained pianissimo. Listen for the second violins and violas briefly playing sul ponticello—with bows nearly on top of the bridge, producing a ghostly, brittle sound—an effect we associate with music written much later. After the recapitulation, the coda is full of delightful surprises.
The woodwinds lead us into the Adagio, whose main theme derives from the two-note rising-fourth motive that opened the first movement. Much like a rondo, this theme reappears, varied somewhat each time, to separate contrasting sections. After a final restatement of the theme—very simple now—the woodwinds close with the music that opened the movement.
Dvořák's Scherzo is a furiant, a swaggering Bohemian folk dance with bracing off-kilter rhythms. The fun of a furiant is how it leads you into rhythmic expectations that prove to be all wrong. This movement sounds as if it begins in a duple meter—or alternatively, a slowish triple meter—only to reveal itself as a wickedly fast three. This ambiguity keeps us on our toes until the calmer trio arrives and the piccolo—silent in the symphony until now—gives us a solo turn worth waiting for.
The Finale begins quietly, barely holding its energy back until it can wait no more. Once under way it maintains its high spirits and, as always with Dvořák, an effusion of wonderful tunes and grand moments.
Questions or comments?
Johann Sebastian Bach
Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in D Major, BWV 1068
J.S. Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685 and died in Leipzig in 1750. His Suite No. 3 was probably composed and first performed in Köthen before 1723. The score calls for 2 oboes, 3 trumpets, timpani, continuo, and strings.
Orchestral suites were known as "overtures" in Bach's day, because the first movement of the suite closely followed the form of the French overture; this served as a prelude to a set of dance movements. By the late Baroque the dances had gone out of fashion, but composers continued to use the stylized dance forms for concert music.
No evidence clearly shows us when Bach's Suites for Orchestra were written. We know that they were performed at Leipzig, but there is reason to believe they were adapted from works composed previously at Köthen. The Third Suite appears to have been drawn from a work with violin solo; Bach expanded it to suit an orchestra, with newly-composed parts for winds, trumpets, and drums.
The Overture follows the traditional ABA form, with slow, majestic sections surrounding a lively fugue. Listeners will recognize the second movement Air as the source of the so-called "Air on the G String," and will no doubt appreciate its original setting. The three-part Gavotte can trace its ancestry to a French folk dance, later updated for the ballroom before passing out of style. The Bourée has similar origins; both it and the concluding Gigue are sprightly dances that close out the Suite worlds away from the serious-sounding Overture.
Overture to La Cenerentola (Cinderella)
Gioacchino Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy in 1792 and died in Paris in 1868. He composed his opera La Cenerentola in 1816-1817 to a libretto by Jacopo Ferretti after the fairy tale by Perrault; it was first performed at the Teatro Valle in Rome the same year. The Overture is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion, and strings.
Rossini was 25 when he wrote this opera; he was at the height of his powers and had already achieved recognition for having "reformed" opera nearly single-handedly. Of his quick rise, Rossini quipped, "I woke up one morning and found myself famous." In the next few years he composed many more operas, over forty in all. Then, having become the most famous opera composer in the world—and making a fortune in the process—he abruptly laid down his pen and composed no more. He had said all he wanted to say.
His opera La Cenerentola was based on the fairy tale Cinderella, but Rossini eschewed the magical portions of the story: there are no ill-fitting glass slippers and no pumpkin coach transforming itself at midnight. What's more, he did some transforming of his own, turning the role of the Fairy Godmother into a philosopher, sung by a bass! As usual he was running late when it came time to compose the Overture, so he pressed his Overture to La gazzetta (composed the year before) into service.
Recycled or not, a Rossini overture always contains delights. Several are in the opening bars: we hear the low strings break the silence with a tentative phrase, followed by stentorian tutti chords. A pair of clarinets brings in a mellifluous solo in the bassoon, whereupon the orchestra leads us to a short (but sweet!) clarinet solo. The horns then set up a little march rhythm, soon taken up by all and leading to the main Allegro. All this in the first three minutes, mind you!
The Allegro itself is buoyant and full of life. It is replete with those sparkling touches—including a long, "Rossini crescendo"—that make it obvious why Rossini woke up famous at such an early age.
Johann Strauss, Jr.
An der schönen blauen Donau, Op. 314
Johann Strauss Jr., was born in Vienna in 1825 and died there in 1899. He composed this waltz in 1866 and it was first performed the following year, in a version with chorus, by the Vienna Men's Choral Association. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
Although he gave them their first lessons in music, Johann Strauss Sr. forbade his sons Johann Jr. and Josef from becoming professional musicians. So, naturally enough, that's just what they did. Johann Jr. took advanced violin and composition lessons without his father's knowledge, and before long was leading his own orchestra in competition with him. By the time he had reached his mid-twenties he was the toast of Vienna, touring the world, and on his way to composing over 150 waltzes.
He was the Waltz King, and none are so well known as his Blue Danube Waltz. The piece began life as a waltz for chorus and orchestra—as hard as that is to believe—and was only mildly successful. Once Johann Jr. rewrote it for orchestra alone, however, it became wildly popular. Whether it evokes the images of men and women in fancy dress whirling about the ballroom—or perhaps the soundtrack of a certain science fiction film—it takes us far from the worries of the day.
The Fountains of Rome
Ottorino Respighi was born in Bologna, Italy in 1879, and died in Rome in 1936. He completed The Fountains of Rome in 1916, and it was first performed in Rome in 1917 at a benefit concert for artists disabled in World War I. The work is scored for large orchestra: 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, celeste, piano, optional organ, and strings.
Respighi is sometimes derided for composing music that broke no new ground, addressed no burning social or philosophical issues, and being, of all things, relentlessly pleasant. Concert-goers have had a different opinion, and works such as The Fountains of Rome remain in the orchestral repertory not because they are pleasant, but because they are good.
Respighi was unashamed of his musical conservatism. He called the prevailing trends in music in the early twentieth century "the biblical confusion of Babel" and essentially ignored them, composing in the same late-romantic style that had been handed down to him. He composed works in nearly all genres, including operas, ballets, concertos, chamber music, choral and vocal works, as well as works for orchestra. His music remains his personal manifesto: it is unabashedly accessible, descriptive and opulent.
The present work is part of Respighi's so-called "Roman Trilogy," which includes The Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals. While The Pines of Rome does include a look back at the greatness of Classical Rome, these pieces are more about the Rome Respighi himself knew and loved. The Fountains of Rome describes some of his favorite places in the city, and he explained his work in the following note:
"In this symphonic poem the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and vision suggested to him by four of Rome's fountains, contemplated at the hour in which their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or in which their beauty appears most impressive to the observer.
"The first part of the poem, inspired by the Fountain of Valle Giulia, depicts a pastoral landscape; droves of cattle pass and disappear in the fresh, damp mists of the Roman dawn.
"A sudden loud and insistent blast of horns above the trills of the whole orchestra introduces the second part, The Triton Fountain. It is like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons, who come running up pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between the jets of water.
"Next there appears a solemn theme, borne on the undulations of the orchestra. It is the Fountain of Trevi at midday. The solemn theme, passing from the wood to the brass instruments, assumes a triumphal character. Trumpets peal; across the radiant surface of the water there passes Neptune's chariot, drawn by sea horses and followed by a train of sirens and tritons. The procession then vanishes, while faint trumpet blasts resound in the distance.
"The fourth part, the Villa Medici Fountain, is announced by a sad theme, which rises above a subdued warbling. It is the nostalgic hour of sunset, the air is full of the sound of tolling bells, birds twittering, leaves rustling. Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night."
Concerto for Violin & Orchestra No. 1, Op. 35
Karol Szymanowski was born in Tymoszówka in the Kiev district of the Ukraine in 1882, and died in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1937. He composed this work in 1916, and it was first performed in Warsaw in 1922 by Jozef Oziminski, violin with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Emil Mylnarski. The score calls for solo violin, 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, celeste, piano, and strings.
Karol Szymanowski may be the most interesting Polish composer you've never heard. Born to a wealthy family with a lively interest in the arts, Szymanowski had his first music lessons from his father, then at the local conservatory. Later he attended the National Conservatory at Warsaw, where he would later serve as Director from 1926-32. The smallness of the musical world in Warsaw led him to travel widely throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the US. Before his premature death from tuberculosis he produced several symphonies, an opera, two violin concertos, many songs, much piano and chamber music, a good deal of poetry, and a novel.
When Szymanowski composed this concerto, romanticism was still hanging on (as it does to this day), while composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, and others were reevaluating first principles to the delight of some and chagrin of others. Szymanowski's earlier compositional style owed much to romanticism (with a dollop of Scriabin thrown in), but by this time he was breaking away from it as had the others. This concerto, he said, had some of what was new, "and yet a little bit of a return to the old. The whole is terribly fantastical and unexpected."
The Concerto's form is much like a tone poem: continuous, but with easily discernible movements—perhaps we should call them phases—within. The first of these, an Allegro assai, is an exotic night music full of fairy tale giddiness and dramatic passion. The Andantino that follows is rapt with glowing color and tender, amorous gestures. The central Vivace lasts only a minute, its perpetual-motion outer sections surrounding a short, rhapsodic passage for the soloist. A sometimes languid, sometimes passionate Allegretto returns to a more introspective tone. The final fast section sounds like a synthesis of all that has come before, and leads us to an eerie cadenza. A grand orchestral climax returns us to a fairy tale nocturne and a deliciously surprising ending.
Questions or comments?
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Overture to La Clemenza di Tito K. 621
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (he never used "Amadeus" except when making a joke) was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756 and died in Vienna in 1791. He composed his opera La Clemenza di Tito in 1791, and it was first performed in Prague the same year. The score of the Overture calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
The subject matter of most opera seria seems stilted to those of us today who live under democratic governments, particularly as we view the demise of tyrannical regimes in places just discovering rule "by the people." Traditionally, the plot of opera seria involved a rather unsubtle heroic theme intended to demonstrate the wisdom and benevolence of the ruling class. La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) K. 621 was Mozart's last opera, and with opera seria already waning in popularity, one of the last of the genre.
Mozart received the commission in mid-July of 1791 for an opera to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold II to be held in Prague on September 6. The cast had not yet been hired, so Mozart could only begin work on the choruses and ensemble numbers. He learned the identities and capabilities of his cast only in mid-August, a bare eighteen days before the first performance. Substantial portions of the opera were probably composed on the journey to Prague itself (in his head, as usual) and upon his arrival; Mozart likely composed the Overture at the very last minute. Despite its theme, the first performance was not well-received by the royal couple, particularly the Emperor's wife, Queen Maria Louisa of Spain, who pronounced it "German swinishness."
The Overture possesses that deceptive simplicity that only a master can produce. Its first subject is an alternately stoic and impulsive theme for the strings. This contrasts with the sweet second subject for the winds, and both are ingeniously interwoven in the development.
Although La Clemenza di Tito was performed fairly widely after Mozart's death, it has remained obscure until the last thirty years. Where audiences have become reacquainted with it, they have learned of its special Mozartean warmth and nobility. Its Overture stands as a metaphor for the whole, and an invitation to partake of more.
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola & Orchestra in E-flat major, K. 364
Scholars believe that Mozart composed this work in 1779, but no record of a first performance is known. The score calls for solo violin, solo viola, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings with divided violas.
As a young man Mozart hated his hometown of Salzburg, which he considered a musical backwater. He hated his job in the service of the Archbishop and, no doubt, he hated living with his father. In the late 1770s he took leaves from his work in Salzburg to tour places like Mannheim and Paris in search of a musical post that would allow him to escape. No such post was found, to his utter disappointment, but the exposure to modern musical trends was of inestimable value.
Paris in particular was both brimming with fine instrumentalists and home to a growing music-publishing industry. The concerto form served the needs of both and had become hugely popular with the public as well. The sinfonia concertante sprang up as a means of including more than one soloist in the concerto format. Mozart tried his hand at several of these; the present work is, perhaps, the greatest of his Salzburg works, looking very much forward to the symphonies and concertos he would produce later in Vienna.
Mozart went out of his way to give each soloist an equal voice in the conversation. To this end, he wrote the viola part in the key of D-major and asked that its strings be raised a half-step. This increased the brilliance of the instrument and put its open strings onto notes common to the key of E-flat. (Since the advent of steel strings and bigger violas this practice is usually dispensed with today.) As if to emphasize their equality, the soloists play exactly the same melody an octave apart in their first entrance in the opening Allegro maestoso.
This movement shows one of the distinctions between an ordinary concerto and the sinfonia concertante: the imposing length. It is as long and wide-ranging (especially in the development) as many of Mozart's symphonic first movements. Listen for the "Mannheim crescendo" in the movement's introduction, another device Mozart picked up in his travels.
The slow movement is a wonderment. Its minor key is rare for a concerto, and the frequent dissonances create a poignancy that Mozart had not attained in prior works. The concluding Presto is in the expected rondo form, and with it comes a lighter mood. The soloists banter in much shorter phrases, lively and full of written-out ornamentation. The last iteration of the rondo's theme is given to the soloists, an unusual touch.
The Parisian sinfonia concertante was conceived as light entertainment and it served the circumstances of the day. It had a short life span, lasting only into the beginning of the nineteenth century. Great composers would write "double concertos" in the future, but they are quite rare. Mozart's work here is, in a word, symphonic. Its sheer size and scope make it singular among the hundreds of pieces written by others to the same formula; the depth of feeling in its middle movement makes it the most beloved.
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Serenade in D major, K.320, "Posthorn"
Mozart composed this work in 1779 and it was likely first performed the same year. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, posthorn, 2 trumpets, and strings.
In between their "serious" projects like operas, symphonies, and concertos, composers like Mozart also wrote music for dancing, dining, and general entertainment. The forms might have names like divertimento or serenade, but the object was the same: a collection of light (if not inconsequential) movements designed not to be played all at once, but interspersed amidst an afternoon's (or evening's) entertainment. Because the movements were meant to be sampled one at a time, they tended to be longer and more involved than symphonic movements, and works like the "Posthorn" Serenade might run longer than a symphony when played start to finish.
The posthorn was a small valveless brass instrument, usually coiled like a French horn. They were used to announce the arrival or departure of the mail coach as far back as the 16th century. The earliest examples were quite small, though over the years larger instruments were built. It is considered to be the ancestor of the modern day cornet, which is now used in its place.
Why Mozart would use such an instrument in the sixth movement of this serenade is unknown, but historians have ventured a plausible guess. It was a tradition at the University of Salzburg for the students to commission a serenade (called finalmusik) to be played for their professors after final exams, which were held in August. Since Mozart referred to his "most recent finalmusik" in a letter from about the same time, it's a good bet he composed the Serenade for that purpose. The posthorn would have symbolically announced the departure of the students rather than the mail coach. And the many musical jokes in the work might have delighted the professors.
For years, Mozart had been anxious to leave Salzburg, mainly because he considered it a musical backwater, but also to escape his domineering father. As it turns out, he composed the "Posthorn" Serenade, with its image of the coach leaving town, shortly before he purposely got himself fired from his Salzburg post and struck out for Vienna. Coincidence?
Questions or comments?
Carl Maria von Weber
Overture to Der Freischütz
Carl Maria von Weber was born in Oldenburg, Germany in 1786 and died in London in 1826. He completed his opera Der Freischütz in 1821 and conducted the premiere performance in Berlin the same year. The Overture is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
Carl Maria von Weber was the quintessential romantic artist: he was a virtuoso pianist, the most important conductor of his day (and the first to insist on complete control of every aspect of an opera production), a music critic, novelist, and artist . As a composer his effect on the music world was wide and deep. After Beethoven, Weber was the name cited by composers such as Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Liszt as their greatest influence. The only wonder of it all is why his music is so rarely performed today.
With Der Freischütz Weber invented the German romantic opera in a single stroke and set it on a path that led straight to Wagner. In Weber's time opera was considered to be an Italian art form; but here was a central European story, sung in German, laced with the atmosphere of Teutonic legend. "Der Freischütz" means, very loosely, "The Free-Shooter." The story concerns a man who sells his soul to the devil to obtain magic bullets that unerringly hit their targets. There is a love story and some comic elements as well, but the theme is the struggle between the forces of good and evil—Weber saw it as a long descent into darkness and a return to the light.
You can hear the elements of that struggle clearly in the Overture. Most of the music is taken directly from the opera itself—an innovation soon to be widely copied—and its themes are juxtaposed as they will be when the drama unfolds. A key exception is the gorgeous horn quartet near the beginning, which is never heard again but which draws us into the magic of the forest.
Greenwich Village Portraits
David Amram was born in Philadelphia in 1930. He originally composed this work for saxophone and piano in 2013 on a commission from the World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund, and it was first performed by Kenneth Radnofsky in 2014 in New York City. Today we hear the premiere performance of Amram's arrangement of the work for saxophone and strings.
Such an eclectic musician as David Amram is essentially indescribable. He first made his mark as a French horn player: he played Latin music with Buddy Rowell, jazz with Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettiford, and classical with the National Symphony Orchestra. That kind of diversity marks his range as a composer, too. He was the New York Philharmonic's first composer-in-residence, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his film score to Archibald MacLeish's J.B. His experiences, influences, and insights are as wide as the sky.
Amram writes the following about his Greenwich Village Portraits: "This piece was inspired by three Greenwich Village legends, Arthur Miller, Odetta, and Frank McCourt, who were close friends and collaborators with me over the years, all of whom I first met and whom I often worked and spent years together with during the forty years I lived in the Village. The three movements are dedicated to three of the streets in the Village where we spent so many joyous hours.
"I. MacDougal Street, for Arthur Miller. (Music based on jazz, Latin, folk, NYC urban flavors, and traditional styles of Middle Eastern music, all of which could be heard every night on one block of MacDougal Street.) It was inspired by our nights out after hours of rehearsing during our collaborations in the Village for the Lincoln Center Theater (1964-66), where I composed scores for the premieres of Miller's plays After the Fall and Incident at Vichy. Since Lincoln Center hadn't yet completed the construction of their theater uptown in 1964 when the company began performing the first play, the early productions were moved to the ANTA Washington Square Theater on 45 West 4th Street in Greenwich Village, minutes away from MacDougal Street's rich musical tapestry.
"II. Bleecker Street, for Odetta. (Music based on blues, folk, and spirituals which Odetta championed.) This movement honors our friendship and countless nights playing together all over the Village, as well as at festivals in the US and Canada, from the 1960s until she passed away. On many nights we often went to the Village Gate to hear and see our friends who were performing there.
"III. Christopher Street, for Frank McCourt. (Music inspired by Irish reels, jigs, and airs.) This final movement celebrates my friendship with Frank and many of his Irish-American musical friends, during the many years while he was still a high school teacher, as we gathered nightly in the Village at the Lion's Head on Christopher Street, as well as at his brother Malachy McCourt's bar, The Bells of Hell, from the late 1960s until he left us. Frank passed away before we could start work on his idea for a modern-day mass to celebrate the history of New York, which he called Missa Manhattan. The only traditional melody in the entire three movements appears in the middle of this final movement of the piece, where I set an old air, Will Ya Go, Lassie, Go, taught to me by Frank's brother Malachy McCourt."
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100
Sergei Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, Ukraine in 1891 and died near Moscow in 1953. He completed this symphony in 1944, though he used some materials that had been composed several years before. Prokofiev led the premiere performance with the Moscow State Philharmonic Orchestra in 1945. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, piano, harp, timpani, percussion, and strings.
During World War II, the Soviet government moved its most prominent artists to the countryside, away from all the noise—and danger—of Moscow and Leningrad. Prokofiev spent most of 1944 at a "house of creative work" in Ivanovo, about 150 miles from Moscow, along with Glière (his former teacher), Khachaturian, Kabalevsky, Shostakovich, and others. And "creative work" was what the no-nonsense Prokofiev was all about: while he was at Ivanovo he composed his Eighth Piano Sonata, music for the film Ivan the Terrible, and his Fifth Symphony.
Prokofiev said that he had been working on the Fifth "for several years," but by that he meant that he had been gathering themes for it in a special notebook. "I always work that way," he said, "and probably that is why I write so fast. The entire score of the Fifth was written in one month in the summer of 1944; it took another month to orchestrate it."
The symphony has no program, but Prokofiev said, "I conceived it as a symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit, praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul. I did not choose this theme deliberately; it just came into my head and insisted on being expressed." One shouldn't make too much of this. Soviet composers learned to attach this kind of boiler-plate rhetoric to their works as an act of self-preservation: better to suggest a fictitious (but politically acceptable) program than to leave the interpretation of a work's meaning open to the authorities. (Even that didn't always work. In 1948, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and others were denounced by the Soviet government for their music's "decadent modernist and formalist" tendencies. All were made to publicly apologize for their errors and promise to repent by embracing Soviet Realism as their artistic credo. Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony was spared specific condemnation in this purge, and in fact it later won the Stalin Prize.)
Prokofiev had learned to tone down his style, too. The fifth has less of the biting dissonance of his early works and more of the lyricism that made Romeo and Juliet so affecting. From the opening motto in the woodwinds—one of those melodies only Prokofiev could write—the first movement is ardently lyrical. This theme is given an austere treatment at first, but it is full of latent power, as will be seen later on. A rather impolite clarinet tune opens the second movement scherzo. This movement has some of the vinegar we expect from Prokofiev, but it is more sarcastic than bitter. The third movement is broad, dense, richly scored, and has a hair-raising climax. After a brief reminiscence of the first movement's opening motto, the Finale takes off in a whirlwind. As always with this composer, the melodies take you to unexpected places and the harmonies are both slippery and bracing.
The Fifth Symphony's premiere was a triumph, but a few days later Prokofiev suffered a concussion in a fall and was never truly healthy again. He continued to compose, but none of his later works would achieve the combination of critical acclaim and popular enthusiasm of the Fifth Symphony.
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Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847)
Overture in C major
Felix Mendelssohn was a child prodigy in the Mozartean class—and so was his sister, Fanny. Their parents provided them with equal musical training: both studied piano and composition. The Mendelssohn family also established a series of regular Sunday salon concerts in their home, hiring a private orchestra for the entertainment of their friends among the intellectual elite of Berlin.
In those days it was out of the question for Fanny to become a professional anything, other than a wife and mother. She married an artist, had one child, and meanwhile composed over 400 pieces, including a string quartet, a piano trio, four cantatas, organ works, and music for chorus. She was a master composer of lieder and piano music. She may well have been a better composer of lieder than her brother.
Her husband encouraged her to publish her work and she finally relented. Alas, her long-awaited emergence into the world of music was cut short by her death, probably from a stroke, less than two years later. A devastated Felix died from the same cause within a few months. They are buried side-by-side in Berlin.
As soon as the Overture starts we know we are in the presence of an assured, confident artist. The opening fanfare and slow introduction give way to a vigorous and tuneful Allegro. The development is particularly effective. Scholars who analyze this work invariably compare it to this or that work by Felix, but there's no need: the work stands on its own two feet with no help necessary.
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)
Nocturne for Orchestra
Overture: Proud Thames
Born in England to Irish parents, Elizabeth Maconchy grew up in Ireland, having piano lessons and composing by the age of six. In her teens she entered the Royal College of Music, where she studied composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams; she later studied with K. B. Jirák. When she returned to England she embarked on a long and successful career as a composer. Her first big break came when one of her pieces was featured on a Proms concert in 1930, after which her music—mostly string quartets, chamber music, and orchestral pieces—were heard regularly in England and Europe.
Maconchy composed her Nocturne for Orchestra in 1950. It is a short work, atmospheric and dreamlike as its title implies, though with a menacing undercurrent that emerges from time to time. The music seems to drive itself towards a sweeping melody in the trumpet and the loud brass fanfares that follow; after this the music gradually returns to the silence with which it began.
Maconchy composed her Overture: Proud Thames as her entry in a competition for a Coronation Overture for the new queen in 1953; it was the winning entry. Although it begins humbly, with snippets of melody, this overture—a tone poem, really—becomes bolder and more majestic as the river winds its way from its origins to its stately course past London.
Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896)
Concerto for Piano & Orchestra in A minor, Op. 7
When Clara Wieck married Robert Schumann she was a world-renowned pianist, while hardly anyone had ever heard of her new husband. Her father had taught her piano, violin, voice, theory, harmony, counterpoint, and composition, and she was expected to practice for two hours after each lesson. He also bitterly opposed her marriage.
Clara continued her composing and her concert career, as indeed she had to, for she was the breadwinner of the family. She personally managed her own career, and increasingly managed Robert's as well. She composed 66 works altogether, including much piano music, songs, the piano concerto, a piano trio, and works for chorus.
She began this concerto at the age of 13. She composed it originally as a konzertsatz, a one-movement work, and later expanded it to three movements that are connected without pause. It is a stunning achievement for a teenager, even in a world that contained a Felix Mendelssohn (who conducted the premiere). The first movement is a fantasy-like theme and variations, the second is a Romanze scored for piano and cello alone, and the Finale begins sounding very much like a polonaise, but turns out to be more like a rondo. Her gift for lyricism shines through it all, along with immense power and virtuosity.
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
D'un soir triste
Lili Boulanger was the younger sister of the great composer and teacher Nadia. After tagging along with her sister to classes at the Paris Conservatoire, Lili studied composition with her sister, then with Gabriel Fauré, among others. She played piano, organ, violin, cello, and harp. In 1913, at the age of 19, she became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome with her cantata Faust et Hélène. Sadly, she was chronically ill for most of her life; it was Crohn's disease that took her life at age 24.
In between her illnesses came bursts of creativity. She composed around fifty works, many of them for chorus and many on religious subjects. Her D'un soir triste (Of a Sad Evening) was the penultimate piece she composed and the last she could score in her own hand. (She had to dictate her last work, Pie Jesu, to her sister Nadia.) It is the companion piece to her D'un matin de Printemps (Of a Spring Morning); although the tone of these two works couldn't be more different, they both begin with the very same musical motive. D'un soir triste is a sad evening indeed. Its dark, impressionistic opening leads to a number of hair-raising climaxes, powerful and even terrifying. There is much here that is exquisitely beautiful, yet there also the foreboding sense that she knew that her tragically premature death was near.
Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Bal masqué, Op. 22
Amy Beach may be the most important American composer you've never heard of. Born in New Hampshire and raised in Boston, she started composing at age four, performing (on the piano) at age seven, and published her first song at age sixteen. When she married she ceased performing but with the encouragement of her husband she continued to compose.
Beach is best known for her songs and chamber music, but she wrote for the orchestra with equal skill. She was the first American woman to compose a symphony; that work ("Gaelic Symphony") and her Piano Concerto were premiered by no less than the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Beach's early works were in a late-romantic style, but her later music is harder to classify. Her interests drew her to such diverse elements as Eskimo music on the one hand and bird-song on the other. It is safe to say that Beach's later works grew more dissonant, and occasionally "impressionistic."
Beach originally composed her Bal masqué (Masked Ball) for the piano in 1893, later scoring it for full orchestra. This is a grand waltz in the tradition of the Strauss brothers, a succession of great tunes (listen for the wonderful cello melody in the second episode) all bound together by grace, wit, and no small amount of fun.
Peggy Stuart Coolidge (1913-1981)
Spirituals in Sunshine and Shadow
Born in Swampscott, Massachusetts, Peggy Stuart Coolidge began piano lessons at five, began composing at nine, and later studied composition at the Boston University School of Music and the New England Conservatory. Although she had appeared as a piano soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and various European orchestras, Coolidge eventually concentrated her efforts on composing and conducting.
Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops premiered a number of her works. After befriending Aram Khachaturian and his wife Nina, Coolidge became the first American composer—male or female—to have a concert dedicated entirely to her works presented in the Soviet Union. She composed the film score to The Silken Affair in 1956 and the incidental music to the Broadway production of Red Roses for Me in 1946. Her connection to Boston showed itself in titles such as her Boston Concerto and Isabella, written in memory of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Coolidge also had the distinction of writing a ballet for performance on ice skates, called Cracked Ice.
Coolidge often emulated the folk musics of America in her works, though she seldom quoted actual songs. This is true of her Spirituals in Sunshine and Shadow, composed in 1969, which was inspired by Negro spirituals and the blues. As the work opens you may be forgiven for hearing cowboy music in it, but this is typical Coolidge Americana music to set the stage. What follows are a series of gorgeous tunes that are hugely evocative of the African-American experience in America, delivered with grace and élan.
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Symphonic Poem on 3 Notes
Tan Dun was born in 1957 in the Hunan province of China. He composed this work in 2011 on a commission from the Teatro Real Opera, and it was first performed the same year in Madrid by the Teatro Real Orchestra under the direction of James Conlon. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, harp, and strings.
Tan Dun's life story and musical development are bound together as one. He was born in 1957 to middle-class parents in the Hunan province of China. When the commissars of the Cultural Revolution decreed that his white-collar parents might better serve the State by working in the rice fields, he was sent to live with his grandmother in the country. She taught him to play the erhu, the traditional Chinese fiddle, and also taught him the ritual-laden ways of Chinese peasant culture. His fiddling earned him the leadership of a local Peking opera troupe and eventually a place at the Central Conservatory. It was there, at age 19, that he first heard Western music, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra on a cultural exchange tour.
"From that moment," Tan says, "I wanted to be a composer like Beethoven." He eventually left China to study composition at Columbia University in 1986. Since that time his works have been performed and recorded by orchestras all over the world, and he has received music's highest honors, including the Bartók Prize, the Suntory Prize, the Grawemeyer Award, and both an Academy Award and a Grammy Award for his film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Tan currently lives in New York.
Tan writes the following about this work: "One day I received a phone call from the Teatro Real Opera in Madrid, they were planning a surprise seventieth birthday celebration for Plácido Domingo and called me to ask whether I could write a work for the occasion. Instantly I said yes! Since working with Plácido on my opera The First Emperor, he has truly become one of my dear friends. When first imagining the piece, I thought it very celebratory to use Plácido's name as part of the music—when you rap his name 'Plácido' it sounds like LA SI DO. I used the notes LA SI DO/A-B-C to form the musical theme of this symphonic poem. The beginning of the piece echoes the start of new life, like a dream it unfolds with the sounds of birds, incense, wind and rain—the tubular chimes start to sing and LA SI DO appears for the first time. This theme then unfolds in a variety of textures: symphonic rapping, instrumental and vocal hip-hop, blowing sounds and stones. Through the course of the piece, the industrial brake drums and car wheel sounds join in representing nature and life growing and progressing into cities and societies. The climax erupts with the rapping and shouting of PLA-CI-DO and falls with chanting and foot stamping as these three notes return back to nature, back to the origin and back to the future. In the end, I called it Symphonic Poem on 3 Notes in celebration of my friend Pla-ci-do."
Trail of Tears for Flute & Orchestra
Michael Daugherty was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1954. He composed this work in 2010 on a co-commission from the American Composers Orchestra, Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, Delaware Symphony Orchestra, Omaha Symphony, and the Tupelo Symphony. The work was first performed in Omaha the same year by flutist Amy Porter and the Omaha Symphony under the direction of Thomas Wilkins. The score calls for solo flute, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
Michael Daugherty has distinguished himself—and delighted his audiences—by creating serious music inspired by pop culture icons. A mere perusal of his titles (Route 66, Desi, Dead Elvis, La tombeau de Liberace, Jackie O, Elvis Everywhere) lets us know that something unique and wonderfully wacky is afoot.
But this is one of Daugherty's works that looks far beyond pop culture for its inspiration. Of Trail of Tears he writes: "One of the tragedies of human history is the forced removal of peoples from their homeland for political, economic, racial, religious, or cultural reasons. In America, the forced removal of all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River began with the passage of President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830. In 1838, 15,000 Cherokee men, women, and children were forcefully taken from their homes by the U.S Army and placed in stockades and camps in Tennessee. From November 1838 to March 1839, the Cherokee, with scant clothing and many without shoes, were forced to make an 800-mile march for relocation in Oklahoma during the bitter cold of winter. Suffering from exposure, disease, and starvation, nearly 4,000 Cherokee died during the five-month march known as the 'Trail of Tears.'
"My flute concerto is a musical journey into how the human spirit discovers ways to deal with upheaval, adversity and adapting to a new environment. The first movement reflects on meaningful memories of things past, inspired by a quotation from the Native American leader, Geronimo (1829-1909): 'I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.' The second movement, entitled 'incantation,' meditates on the passing of loved ones and the hope for a better life in the world beyond. The third and final movement, 'sun dance,' evokes the most spectacular and important religious dance ceremony of the Plains Indians of 19th-century North America. Banned for a century by the U.S. government, the dance is now practiced again today. I have composed a fiery musical dance to suggest how reconnecting with rituals of the past might create a path to a new and brighter future."
Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 in A major, Op. 11
George Enescu (known also as Georges Enesco) was born in 1881 in Liveni, Romania, and died in Paris in 1955. He composed this work in 1901, and led the first performance in Bucharest in 1903. The score calls for 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, and strings.
George Enescu was a child prodigy in the Mozartean class: he played the violin at age four and began composing at five. He was admitted—by special dispensation—to the Vienna Conservatory at age seven and later studied at the Paris Conservatoire. Enescu became a violinist, pianist, composer, conductor, musicologist, and teacher. He was world-renowned as a violinist, and a violin teacher to some of the most famous violinists of the twentieth century, including Yehudi Menuhin and Ivry Gitlis. He appeared as a soloist and conductor all over the world.
Although he composed steadily throughout his career, Enescu's output was relatively small, for he was a very busy man. He composed symphonies, concertos, songs, chamber music, music for piano, works for violin, an opera, and various works for orchestra. His Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 is the best known of all of these, and the only one still played with any frequency.
He composed the work at the age of nineteen, using authentic Romanian folk tunes in the Gypsy style. After the work opens with an inspired call-and-response between the clarinet and oboe, these are cannily arrayed in a sequence of ever-accelerating tempi—the serene calmness of the opening is transformed, by the end, into a frenzy of enormous energy and excitement. All along the way we hear the assurance of a master craftsman and a brilliant orchestrator, and a piece that leaves us wishing for more.
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Concerto for Tuba & Orchestra in F minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England in 1872 and died in London in 1958. He composed this concerto in 1954 for the London Symphony Orchestra's 50th anniversary, and it was first performed the same year by Philip Catelinet, tuba, and the LSO under the direction of John Barbirolli. The score calls for solo tuba, 2 flutes, piccolo, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion, and strings.
No one knows, exactly, how Vaughan Williams came to compose a concerto for the tuba, the first of its kind from a major composer. He seems to have come by the idea himself. The first soloist, Philip Catelinet, recounts the panic-inducing telephone call he received from the London Symphony Orchestra's management: "Ralph Vaughan Williams has written a tuba concerto and wants you to play it at our Jubilee Concert in June."
In the hands of another composer, such a project might have been seen as an opportunity to exploit the instrument's capacity for comedy and to indulge in various grotesqueries. But while Vaughan Williams' concerto is often lighthearted, the composer took the work seriously. For him it was a challenge: to create a showcase for an instrument that was seldom given the center stage.
He did that, and more. The jaunty first movement has an easy gait, with the tuba giving us its affable tune. The cadenza plays against type, with high, delicate writing. The central Romanza is simply gorgeous, with the soloist proving that not only can the tuba play expressively, but that it sounds beautiful when it does. The Finale is a delightful romp that shows us an agility from the tuba that we never knew it had. After the contemplative cadenza the orchestra provides an exclamation point, and we realize that Vaughan Williams met his challenge with both integrity and panache.
Manuel de Falla
Suite No. 2 from El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-cornered Hat), G. 59
Manuel de Falla was born in Cádiz, Spain in 1876 and died in Alta Gracia, Córdoba, Argentina in 1946. He composed the first version of this work—then called El corregidor y la molinera, based on a story by Alarcón—in 1917. He revised that work, now calling it The Three-cornered Hat, for use as a ballet first given in London in 1919 by the Ballets Russes under the direction of Ernest Ansermet. In 1921 Falla extracted two orchestral suites from the ballet. The score of the Suite No. 2 calls for 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celeste, and strings.
A case of mistaken identity in a sex comedy—there's a hardy perennial for you! Such a thought may have crossed impresario Serge Diaghilev's mind as he saw Falla's "pantomime" in Madrid, but not for long. He had been looking for a story with a Spanish flavor to it for some time and knew that Falla's work could be the basis for the Ballets Russes' next big hit.
Diaghilev asked Falla to expand his work into a one-act ballet, with choreography to be created by Massine and sets by Picasso. Falla had recently spent a good deal of time in Paris soaking up the sounds (and techniques) of Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, but given Diaghalev's desire for an authentic Spanish sound he took the opportunity to return to the forms and idioms of his homeland. The story was a variation on an old theme, but a good one: a screwball comedy based on love and mistaken identity. The result became not only a hit for Diaghilev but Falla's best-known work, in the form of this suite taken from the ballet.
The three numbers of Falla's Suite No. 2 are all taken from the second scene of the ballet. The first is "The Neighbors' Dance," the lively seguidilla that opens the scene. A French horn call and an improvisatory English horn solo open "The Miller's Dance," a farruca that alternates strutting, macho music with gentler interludes. The "Final Dance" begins with a short episode of furtive excitement, then becomes a celebratory jota with incredible rhythmic drive and vertigo-inducing changes of pace. The music is cinematic, bold, and indescribably colorful. A real treat!
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