Classics Series Program Notes 2017-2018

Classics Series

PROGRAM NOTES
by Kalindi Bellach ©2017

Beethoven's Eroica / Shostakovich's Tenth / Dvořák's New World Beethoven's Emperor

Beethoven's Eroica

Giordano Bellincampi, conductor
Leonardo Colafelice, piano

Program:

Rossini - Overture to La gazza ladra
Prokofiev - Piano Concerto No. 3
Beethoven - Symphony No. 3

Rossini: Overture to La gazza ladra

Giaochino Rossini completed his overture to La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”) in 1817, when he was just twenty-five years old. The story is lifted from a French melodrama, and though mostly comedic, it also contains elements of tragedy.

The story goes like this. A housemaid called Nanetta hides her father, a deserter from the army, who then gives her a spoon to help with his expenses. Nanetta sells the spoon. Meanwhile, Nanetta is holding the mayor – and his affections – at bay. Then a different spoon is found missing from the house, and Nanetta is arrested. Her father comes out of hiding to argue for her and is himself arrested, and Nanetta is found guilty of stealing the second spoon and sentenced to death. As she is being taken to the gallows, the king issues a last-minute reprieve for both Nanetta and her father. It was discovered that a magpie had been stealing shiny things, including the missing spoon, which is proven to be different from the one Nanetta sold. The king also pardons her father because he simply feels moved to do so. The story La gazza ladra is based on did not have as amiable an ending, unfortunately.

Many of Rossini’s overtures are not strictly programmatic – that is, they do not follow or foreshadow the story too much. La gazza ladra is no different, following a basic traditional form (Sonata-Allegro) in which three different themes are presented.

The overture opens with what is perhaps the most well-known element: the snare drum rolls, which can be heard coming from opposite sides of the stage. Commentator Roberto Kalb suggests that this is an allusion to the fact that both Nanetta’s father and husband are soldiers. Commentator James Keller, however, categorizes the use of the antiphonal snare drums as a reference to the opera’s “tragic overtones.” He goes on to list the other references to these overtones as the “walking-on-eggshells bit[s] in the minor mode, and a passage of ‘Rossini storm music,’” but then reminds us that this is still comic opera, and “[these elements] can be written off as prefiguring tempests in teapots rather than high-stakes judicial proceedings.”

The second theme is faster, presented in the winds. The strings accompany them, using a technique called battute, meaning to lightly “beat” the bow on the string. The theme that follows is more lyrical and is heard first in the oboe and then in the clarinet. Throughout the overture, there are long crescendos – something of a Rossini trademark. But these ones are distinctive because of how he created them: instead of having the instruments add volume, Rossini gradually adds instruments, creating a steadily building intensity.

Although La gazza ladra is most often called Opera buffa, it might be more accurate to call it Opera semiseria, a hybrid between entirely serious operas and entirely amusing ones. La gazza ladra is clearly not straight comedic opera, but contains politically relevant and near-tragic material. It’s possible that the confusion over designation comes from the fact that Opera semiseria is derived from Opera buffa. It’s also true that Rossini is most celebrated for his contributions to the Opera buffa genre. Keller explains “He had written plenty of songs and piano pieces, a substantial catalogue of sacred music, and even a handful of thoroughly serious operas on topics tragical, historical, and Biblical. But there was no getting around the fact that his most towering achievement had been as one of music’s greatest comedians, as a composer of Opera buffa.” Rossini himself wrote the following note to accompany his Petite Messe solennelle in 1863: “Thou knowest, O Lord, that I was born to write opera buffa. Rather little skill, a bit of heart, and that’s all. So be Thou blessed and admit me to Paradise.”

On its premiere at La Scala, Milan, in May 1817, La gazza ladra was promptly declared a masterpiece. Keller details one account of the performance, which describes a full five minutes of applause and shouts of “Bravo, Maestro!” Now, over a century later, it remains one of the most engaging overtures in our repertoire.

 

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3

Following young Serge Prokofiev’s American debut with the Chicago Symphony in 1918, the American ran an article headed “Russian Genius Displays Weird Harmonies.” Not everyone felt that way, however! A writer for the Journal, Henriette Weber, wrote that Prokofiev’s music was “big, sincere, true … [and] every man and woman there reacted to it.” Prokofiev’s debut made him a US success, so he decided to stay a while.

Soon, Cleofonte Campanini, director of the Chicago Opera, commissioned Prokofiev to write The Love for Three Oranges. It’s a testament to Prokofiev’s abrupt and extreme popularity not just in Chicago but across the States that the new opera was used to promote citrus! Unfortunately, the opera’s production was not smooth. It was during one of its stalls that Prokofiev composed the Third Piano Concerto (which, with The Love for Three Oranges, he referred to as “American”). He premiered the Third Piano Concerto on December 16, 1921. It was not as popular as his symphonic work. Prokofiev said that the audience “did not quite understand” it.

As a pianist, Prokofiev was described as both formidable and fearless, and he astonished audiences with, as fellow composer Francis Poulenc called them, his “long, spatulate fingers [that] held the keyboard as a racing car holds a track.” With those fingers Prokofiev enjoyed performing the most difficult concertos, including Beethoven’s “Emperor” and those by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The two concertos he completed while he was still at school, his first, are also quite challenging. A critic described the “ultramodern second [from 1913] … [as leaving listeners] frozen with fright, hair standing on end.” During the gap between his second and third piano concertos, Prokofiev collected a lot of the material that makes up his Third Piano Concerto. Building up a stash of sketches for eventual use was part of his compositional process throughout his life.

While the Third Piano Concerto can by no means be called “ultramodern,” its various musical elements, combined with the sincerity and simplicity of the writing, certainly qualifies it for a place in the halls of modernity. As Huscher states, “The score is a remarkable achievement, combining the brilliant, edgy momentum of Prokofiev’s previous music with a haunting new lyricism.”

Prokofiev provided his own program note for the work: “The first movement opens quietly with a short introduction (Andante). The theme is announced by an unaccompanied clarinet and is continued by the violins for a few bars. Soon the tempo changes to Allegro, the strings having a passage in sixteenth notes, which leads to the statement of the principal subject by the piano. Discussion of this theme is carried on in a lively manner, both the piano and the orchestra having a good deal to say on the matter. A passage in chords for the piano alone leads to the more expressive second subject, heard in the oboe with a pizzicato accompaniment. This is taken up by the piano and developed at some length, eventually giving way to a bravura passage in triplets. At the climax of this section, the tempo reverts to [the slower] Andante, and the orchestra gives out the first theme ff. The piano joins in, and the theme is subjected to an impressively broad treatment. In resuming the Allegro, the chief theme and the second subject are developed with increased brilliance, and the movement ends with an exciting crescendo.

“The second movement consists of a theme with five variations. The theme is announced by the orchestra alone. In the first variation, the piano treats the opening of the theme in quasi-sentimental fashion, and resolves into a chain of trills, as the orchestra repeats the closing phrase. The tempo changes to Allegro for the second and the third variations, and the piano has brilliant figures, while snatches of the theme are introduced here and there in the orchestra. In Variation Four the tempo is once again Andante, and the piano and orchestra discourse on the theme in a quiet and meditative fashion. Variation Five is energetic (Allegro giusto). It leads without pause into a restatement of the theme by the orchestra, with delicate chordal embroidery in the piano.

“The finale begins with a staccato theme for bassoons and pizzicato strings, which is interrupted by the blustering entry of the piano. The orchestra holds its own with the opening theme, however, and there is a good deal of argument, with frequent differences of opinion as regards key. Eventually the piano takes up the first theme and develops it to a climax. With a reduction of tone and slackening of tempo, an alternative theme is introduced in the woodwinds. The piano replies with a theme that is more in keeping with the caustic humor of the work. This material is developed, and there is a brilliant coda.”

Prokofiev follows basic classical forms in each movement but also integrates his own harmonic language. This harmonic language is partially responsible for an enthusiastic following in his native Russia and for the subsequent claiming of the concerto as an early example of a national style. Musicologist Igor Glebov states in particular that this was “the beginning of a trend towards national music that would be consummated in the forthcoming Second Symphony.”

Musicologist Robert Markow cites the Third Piano Concerto as the “startling point of future evolution … In the composer’s development, such a work is a pivot point that accumulates … the best things that can be drawn from his past experience.” Markow goes on to talk about the relationship between the concertos of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, which, although they handle the element of folk music in different ways, share an “organic fusion with the greatest efforts and achievements of the Russian musical outlook, in the beautiful combination of novel invention with the power of expression, and in the typically Russian inclination to combine formal simplicity [i.e., Classical] with emotional sincerity.” The opening, described by Markow as one of “luminous and tender melancholy,” followed by the mostly joyful bulk of the piece with its consistent rhythmic clarity and diatonic idioms (the most often-cited “Russian” element) is a perfect example of this.

First recorded in 1932, the Third Piano Concerto has become Prokofiev’s most popular. As Markow explains, Prokofiev’s “extraordinarily rich talent has found its full expression in this work … [in which he] weaves the simplest elements into a sturdy fabric of unexpected sonorities.” However wonderful all the details are, however, the main point remains “that pulsing of life which is spread everywhere, and the blossoming of the joyful composerly thought which is finding the art of expression.”

 

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”

In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven announced, “I am not satisfied with my works up to the present time. From today I mean to take a new road.” His Third Symphony, titled “Eroica,” was the first step on that new road. While his first two symphonies are more closely related to the works of Mozart and Haydn, his Third shows us something unique. As musicologist George Grove explains, “The Eroica first shows us the methods which [would] so completely revolutionize that department of music – the continuous and organic mode of connecting the second subject with the first, the introduction of episodes into the working-out, [and] the extraordinary importance of the Coda.” Beethoven’s Eroica is also the first time a third movement had been labeled a scherzo.

The Eroica was named in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte at the suggestion of General Bernadotte in 1798. It appeared early in Napoleon’s career; he was still known more as a “public man,” a passionate advocate for freedom and responsible for bringing order, and a great leader “to whom no difficulties were obstacles.” It was only later that his reputation as a soldier took precedence. Beethoven, having grown up in Bonn on the edges of the French revolution, had long admired republican ideals of hope and personal freedom. As Grove notes, “The feeling was in the air ... much also which distinguishes his course after he became a resident in the Austrian capital, and was so unlike the conduct of other musicians of the day – the general independence of his attitude, the manner in which he asserted his right to what his predecessors had taken as favors; his refusal to enter the service of any Austrian nobility; his neglect of etiquette and personal rudeness to his superiors in rank – all these things were doubtless more or less due to the influence of Revolutionary ideas.”

In light of this mood, it is no surprise that Beethoven was sorely and personally disappointed when Napoleon turned out to be a tyrant and “the scourge of Austria.” When the score for the Eroica was finished in early1804, Beethoven inscribed at the top the name “Buonaparte.” Beneath this was a blank space – and there’s no way of knowing what Beethoven intended to write there. In May of the same year, the senate asked Napoleon to accept the title Emperor, to which he agreed. This prompted Beethoven to exclaim, “After all, then, he is nothing but an ordinary mortal! He will trample all the rights of men under foot, to indulge his ambition, and become a greater tyrant than any one!” He ripped his title page in half and didn’t speak of the incident again until after Napoleon’s death. Grove notes that there is no reason to think the work was altered (beyond the title page). “It is still a portrait – and we may believe a favorable portrait – of Napoleon, and should be listened to in that sense. Not as a conqueror – that would not attract Beethoven’s admiration; but for the general grandeur and loftiness of his course and of his public character.”

The first movement, Allegro con brio, opens with two great staccato E-flat chords from the full orchestra, “in which all the force of the entire piece seems to be concentrated.” (Grove) This immediately gives way to the first theme, which sets the atmosphere of the movement. This theme is heard first in the cellos before being passed to the violins, and is expansive and lively. Musicologist Charles Wood points out that while this is not technically a leitmotif the way the word is defined in Wagner’s work, the concept does apply here, and we may call the first eight or nine bars the “Napoleon” motif. This first theme is also loosely related melodically to both his D Major Symphony and his Violin Concerto, as well as rhythmically to the Scherzo from Schubert’s C Major Symphony. Furthermore, although this work is set apart from his earlier symphonies, Grove explains that Beethoven is still “not free from the direct influence of Haydn, and even such individual creators as Schubert and Brahms bind themselves by these cords of love to their great forerunner; and thus is forged, age by age, the golden chain, which is destined never to end as long as the world lasts.”

Not everyone appreciated Beethoven’s use of certain newer harmonic elements, which herald the beginnings of German Romanticism. For example, composer Hector Berlioz complained of the “disjointed rhythm, [and the] rude dissonances … where the first violins strike F-natural against E... [claiming that] it is impossible to repress a sensation of fear at such a picture of ungovernable fury.” At an early rehearsal of the first movement, Ries, a student of Beethoven’s, thought that one or more musicians had made a mistake, as the harmony at a particular point seemed to him “as wrong as stealing or lying.” However, the second subject in B-flat is “a passage of singular beauty – more harmony than melody … a theme which, with its yearning, beseeching wind instruments … goes to the inmost heart like a warm pressure of the hands.”

The second movement is quite slow, and is marked Marcia funebre: Adagio assai. Breaking his long silence on the work following Napoleon’s death, Beethoven is reported to have commented that he had “already composed the proper music for that catastrophe,” referring to this movement. The title here is another innovation, as it wasn’t common to call a work a funeral march. The piece is performed sotto voce throughout, and the melody is presented in the oboe, with rhythmic support given by the horns, bassoons, and strings. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described this movement: “It was like a funeral procession in deep purple … before the grief becomes more personal and diffuse.” Berlioz also thought of this in terms of color, describing the difference between chord colors as the difference between blue and violet. He also notes the dramatic tension of the movement, and compares it to “[tracing] … the translation of those beautiful lines of Virgil on the funeral procession of young Pallas.”

The Scherzo and Trio – the Allegro vivace, alla breve comes as something of a relief following the weighty second movement. It opens nimbly, running pianissimo and staccato. The main melody has been assumed to come from a soldier’s song written by musicologist A. B. Marx, but Grove points out that the dates don’t match, so the soldier’s song was likely inspired by Beethoven. Some of Beethoven’s early sketches suggest that this scherzo may have been intended as a minuet.

The Finale: Allegro molto is interrupted by the Poco Andante, con espressione – Presto in the last movement, which has long been a puzzle in its intentions. What is it meant to convey? Is it somewhat too trivial and playful after all the seriousness of the first two movements? Grove references its sense of “daring and romance which pervade [it] … under so much strictness of form,” which gives it more weight but may not explain it. Following a performance in 1827, a critic claimed that Beethoven should have ended with the second movement, because the Finale and the Scherzo are “entirely inconsistent with the avowed design of the composition.”

But regardless, the movement is skillfully crafted, and the Poco andante is evidence that it belongs. It’s often regarded as the apotheosis of the work. The included Fugato also lends it weight. Grove describes the second subject as rough. “[It] might be the dance of a band of Scythian warriors round the tomb of the hero of their tribe.”

Following the premiere in April of 1805, a review was published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitungdetailing the work’s “extraordinary wealth of lovely ideas treated in the most splendid and graceful style, with coherence, order, and clearness reigning throughout … virtually a daring, wild, fantasia, of inordinate length and extreme difficulty of execution.” Beethoven himself was aware of the Eroica’s uncommon length, and published the following notice with the score: “This Symphony, being purposely written at greater length than usual should be played nearer the beginning than the end of a concert, and shortly after an Overture, an Air, and a Concerto; lest, if it is head too late, when the audience are fatigued by the previous pieces, it should lose its proper and intended effect.” In fact, a member of the audience at the premiere reportedly promised to pay “if it would just stop.” This certainly was not a problem felt by many, however. Schumann once said of Brahms: “He should be always thinking of the beginnings of Beethoven’s Symphonies [particularly the Third], and try to make something like them. The beginning is the great thing: once begin, and the end comes before you know it.”

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Shostakovich's Tenth

Alexander Prior, conductor
Julian Schwarz, cello

Program: 

Mussorgsky - Prelude to Khovanshchina
Liebermann – Cello Concerto (world premiere) 
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10

Prelude to Khovanshchina (Dawn Over the Moskva River)
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Modest Mussorgsky was fascinated with history, so when music critic Vladimir Stasov brought “The Khovansky Affair” to Mussorgsky’s attention as a possible subject for an opera, he leapt at the chance to work on it. In his 1881 essay, Stasov explained, “It seemed to me that the struggle between the old and new Russia, the passing of the former from the stage and the birth of the latter, was rich soil for drama, and Mussorgsky shared my opinion.”

The central conflict of Khovanshchina is between Peter the Great (before he was “the Great”) and the three opposing forces that stood in his way: Prince Khovansky, Golitsyn (a supporter of Peter’s sister, the regent Sophia), and the Old Believers, who prevented Peter from taking over the church. Peter triumphs over them all in the end, killing Khovansky and exiling Golitsyn while the Old Believers commit mass suicide by immolation. Mussorgsky wrote the libretto himself, and took some liberties with the story.

Despite his excitement over Khovanshchina, the composition of the opera progressed extremely slowly, and remained partly unfinished upon his death. Act II is incomplete, and Act V is only sketched out. Also, Mussorgsky never got around to orchestrating the Prelude, leaving only the piano reduction. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a friend of Mussorgsky’s and an admirer of his music, completed the first version of the opera in 1881-82 following Mussorgsky’s death.

The other accepted orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina was completed in 1959-60 by Dmitri Shostakovich, who loved Mussorgsky’s work and took the task of finishing Khovanshchina very seriously. Unlike Rimsky-Korsakov, who, for the most part, assembled and elaborated on Mussorgsky’s sketches, Shostakovich studied both sources extensively and revised things as he saw fit. The finished work was so important to him that he gave it an opus number in his own catalogue. In addition to these two versions of Khovanshchina, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky also did a partial reconstruction of the original score in 1913 at the request of Sergei Diaghilev in Paris.

The Prelude to Khovanshchina is titled “Dawn Over the Moskva River,” and opens delicately. Contrary to the title, the curtain rises to reveal the Red Square rather than the river. The oboe has the first melody, set against the backdrop of ascending scales in the violins. As the music becomes more animated, the bells sound and then fade away. Commentator Richard Freed notes that, “It is not a sunburst, but the gradual coming of daylight that is evoked…” In a letter from 1873, Mussorgsky describes the Prelude as “dawn over Moscow, matins with cock-crow, the patrol, the taking down of the chains…”

Commentator John Mangum points out that the peaceful atmosphere of the opening is almost completely “untroubled by the history about to unfold over the course of the opera, reinforcing the fact that nature and the events of daily life, regulated by the ringing of church bells, go on regardless of the machinations of politics.” Commentator Mark Rohr agrees, adding that, “… for Mussorgsky, the real Russia lay in what he called the ‘black, unfertilized earth of its people.’”

Structurally, Mussorgsky’s Prelude is characterized by thematic transformation. While it is basically a folk song with variations, each ephemeral variation makes excellent use of the traditional variants found across repetitions of a folk tune. That is, Mussorgsky’s variations are more similar than the theme and variations form usually indicates.

Despite the fact that Mussorgsky never completed his orchestration of the Prelude, he did leave some indications of how he wanted to score it. Rimsky-Korsakov went his own way a little, and orchestrated it in his own style. Though it might not seem like a problem, commentator James Leonard explains that the Prelude is “… orchestral in its essence, and Rimsky’s orchestration, with its bright woodwinds and light brasses, with its tempo rubato and its languorous tempo, makes the work seem more like a pastoral than a city scene, more like a light elegy than the prelude to a historical tragedy…”

Mussorgsky dedicated Khovanshchina to Stasov, and the Prelude was premiered in an early form in 1866. Tonight, you will be hearing Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration, which is scored for three flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, five trumpets (three are offstage), three trombones, tuba, piano, harp, and strings.

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 132
Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961)

My Cello Concerto, Op.132 was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras including the Toledo Symphony, the Jacksonville Symphony, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (MA), and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (OH). Written for cellist Julian Schwarz, the short score (outline) of the concerto was completed in August of 2017 and the orchestration completed a month later.

I set the concerto in the customary three movements. The first has several sections, as indicated by the marking Recitativo lento – Andante piacevole ed appassionato – Allegro molto – Larhissimo – Andante – Allegro. The work opens with an accompanied cadenza for the cello, which directly leads into the Andante piacevole ed appassionato with the cello singing a long-phrased lyric melody over a glistening accompaniment. A breathlessly virtuosic Allegro follows. A return of material from the opening cadenza leads us back to the Andante before ending the movement with one last Allegro flourish.

The second movement is a heart-felt, extended Largo, and the finale movement, Allegro energico, alternates between menacing and exuberant music in a rondo-like form that highlights the soloist’s virtuosity.

The concerto is scored for two flutes (the second doubling piccolo), two oboes (the second doubling English horn), two clarinets, 2 bassoons, two French horns, two trumpets, one trombone, three percussionists playing a variety of instruments, piano (doubling celesta), harp, strings, and solo cello.

Symphony No. 10
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

“Music is the most widespread form of avoiding any answers to the age, heaven, and future, the most popular method of spiritual masking, thanks to the preciousness of sound, with the aid of which even materialized ordinariness makes itself heard.” This quote from Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak aptly illustrates Shostakovich’s work. Although Shostakovich is known, perhaps better than most, for his ability to turn pain into an incredibly powerful musical experience, this Tenth Symphony is more honest and even more raw than his earlier works. For example, consider his First Symphony, written and premiered just after the 1948 purges. It’s possible that the lack of a pervading tragic element at its end was due to his fear of retaliation. His Fifth Symphony also bowed to the need to protect himself, this time by altering the rhetoric surrounding the piece rather than the music itself. The Tenth Symphony, though, is permeated with the hope kindled by Stalin’s death (March 5, 1953).

The Tenth Symphony as a whole, and the second movement in particular, is a portrait of Stalin, whom Shostakovich described as “evil run amok.” Commentator David Hurwitz points out that “like the First Violin Concerto… [it] has a confident mastery about it that tends to silence criticism [of Stalin].” In this symphony, Shostakovich displays a masterful use of orchestration, creating a great variety of colors and textures. The clear depth of thought behind the work matches the excitement it creates.

Shostakovich structures the Tenth Symphony carefully and, as in some of his other works, follows traditional, large-scale forms both overall and within movements. Hurwitz uses the example of the Fourth Symphony to tell us what’s going on in the Tenth: “Part of the impact of the music’s coruscating and garish exterior stems from its ability to present a simple basic structural idea as a bewildering collage of seemingly unrelated events.” Furthermore, in the Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich “builds on his experience in writing the Ninth, with its classical design, and combines exceptional formal clarity with an expressive range and impact more characteristic of the heroic Fifth.”

The first movement, Moderato, opens with a slow introduction (in keeping with sonata form structure). Shostakovich makes an interesting deviation from the norm, however, by setting the entire movement in the same moderate tempo, with only small adjustments to highlight the music’s expressive qualities. This is a departure from his usual style; many of his other large works build momentum as they progress. The Tenth Symphony instead builds tension, heightening it over time. This is so effective, at least in part, because of Shostakovich’s discipline in holding the tempo back. Hurwitz describes this progression as “[striking] the listener as a single, unified thought, perfectly proportioned and inexorable in its grandeur and forward drive.” Listen especially for the bass instruments, which repeat Shostakovich’s “motto,” and to the horns, which lead the brass in the inverted version of the same. The clarinet also has a lovely plaintive theme following the opening string statements.

The next section brings in the first dancelike element, supported by a more chromatic harmonic palate. Hurwitz describes the “unstable tonality [giving] a curiously fretful quality that can aptly be called tipsy anxiety.” He goes on to note Shostakovich’s unique ability to portray every shade of “feigned happiness or false cheer.”

The second movement is marked Allegro, and it is the most widely appreciated of the work. According to Shostakovich himself, this movement is a portrait of Stalin. Musicologist Solomon Volkov explains the connection to Stalin: “The wild and frightening scherzo, which overwhelms the listener, is a musical portrait of Stalin. Shostakovich himself told me this … the main evidence that this interpretation is not his later invention can be found, as usual, in the music … the great master of hidden motifs and quotations and juxtapositions of rhythmic figures. The ‘Stalin’ part of the Tenth Symphony is based in great part on Shostakovich’s music for the film Fall of Berlin (1950), in which the ruler was a prominent character.”

Besides the “Stalin” music, Shostakovich continues to weave his personal motto - the four notes D-E-flat-C-B - into the fabric, as he does in every movement. It follows a basic arc form, and Hurwitz describes it as a “graphic descent into madness.” Shostakovich’s comment about this movement representing “evil run amok” can be seen especially clearly in his use of major tonalities in each of the climaxes, suggesting the victory of evil, represented by the “Stalin” music. Hurwitz describes this as “one of the most exciting and physically exhilarating pieces of music ever written.”

The third movement is an Allegretto, but the tempo marking is not completely truthful. The third has the character of a slow movement, but yet it allows some livelier outbursts. The main melody references both the First Violin Concerto and the Leningrad Symphony. Shostakovich introduces a waltz-like paragraph in the winds (with triangle), which he interrupts with a horn call. Shostakovich’s use of a horn motif has been the subject of much debate among musicologists. Possible explanations include that it was used for its pastoral nature (relating to the Scene aux champs from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique), was used in relationship to Mahler’s Second Symphony, and that it was based in Russian folk/ritual tunes (specifically with its use of the perfect fourth interval). Musicologist David Fanning calls it “the most enigmatic feature of the entire symphony” and states that it must have been of great personal importance to Shostakovich for him to have inserted it where he did. According to musicologist Nelly Kravetz, Soviet musicologist Lev Mazel comes closest to the truth when he defines the horn insert as a series of “remote reminiscences, some kind of inner summons coming from the depths of the human heart.”

Actually, this points to the actual truth – that the horn theme is based on the name Elmira Nazirova, a student of Shostakovich’s in 1947. The composer corresponded regularly with Elmira for several years while he was writing the second and third movements of this symphony. We know this now because Shostakovich explained it in a letter to Elmira on August 29, 1953. Elmira’s theme melodically complements Shostakovich’s motto very well, and as Kravetz explains, “the tragic significance of Elmira’s monogram is revealed in its interval structure … because of the tonal ambiguity [it] leads the theme into a different emotional mood. There is a sense of loss of orientation and a feeling that this road does not lead anywhere. The last rising fifth … [feels like] a question were hanging in the air without an answer.”

This moodiness acts as a foil for the intensity of the first two movements. Hurwitz says, “In short, it’s vintage Shostakovich in that emotionally ambivalent, ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ mode that no other composer has ever tapped to quite the same degree (Mahler knew it also).”

The finale is in two parts: Andante – Allegro. A main thematic element of the movement comes straight from the third movement’s rising fifths adapted from Elmira’s theme. Immediately following the opening, the main theme of the Allegro can be heard in the clarinet. Hurwitz describes the second theme as a “gruff Russian dance on the strings, with cellos and basses offering yet another tune in three-note phrases deriving from the motto, both right side up as well as upside down.” This theme beneath the theme is quite similar to the “Stalin” music of the second movement and becomes more prominent across the development section. As Stalin’s theme becomes more evident, Shostakovich pits his motto against it. Volkov describes this as “a direct duel … which the Shostakovich theme wins … the theme D-Es-C-H, executed with maniacal stubbornness by various instruments … concludes the symphony, as if the composer is repeating the assertion: And I’m alive!” The mask is finally discarded. The recapitulation brings us back to the introductory material, but the atmosphere is warmer now, no longer fearful.

Twice during his life, Shostakovich experienced public humiliation and censure as a result of his work. The first time was following the premiere of Lady Macbeth, after which he wrote no more operas. The second resulted in his Tenth Symphony. Musicologist Leonid Maximenkov explains: “[Though] contemplated several years earlier, [the Tenth Symphony] did not see the light of day until after Stalin’s death.” While Shostakovich’s incorporation of his life into his music is not new, this symphony is different, reflecting his surroundings and circumstances more clearly and concretely than ever before. Volkov compares the Tenth Symphony to Stravinsky’s triumph at the end of Firebird over Kashchei the Immortal (an evil sorcerer from a Russian fairy tale).  He goes on to say that although all of Shostakovich’s symphonies are “true novels of their time,” the Tenth is “first and foremost infinitely changeable, flexible, multifaceted music; with room for a smile, and sorrow, and pure enchantment.” Shostakovich himself undoubtedly said it best when he claimed that he “wanted [only] to express human passions and feelings.”

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Dvořák's New World

Rune Bergmann, conductor
Rachel Barton Pine, violin

Program: 

Mozart - Overture to "The Marriage of Figaro"

Brahms - Violin Concerto

Dvořák - Symphony No. 9 “New World”

Overture to the Marriage of Figaro
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Le nozze di Figaro was the first of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s three collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, and was completed in 1786. It is based on the second part of the Beaumarchais Figaro Trilogy, picking up where Rossini leaves off in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. At the opening, Figaro is all set to marry Susanna, but of course the wedding is put on pause because of various inevitably funny obstacles.

The creation of Le nozze di Figaro was not smooth. Da Ponte had to get special permission to finish it after an early version of the libretto was banned, and the opera had only a few shows in Vienna before Mozart was forced to take Figaro to Prague, where it enjoyed a warmer reception. In a letter to his father from 1787, Mozart writes: “…Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro; nobody goes to any opera but Figaro; everlastingly Figaro!” He completed his “Prague” Symphony quite soon after this, and was then commissioned to write Don Giovanni.

Unlike some others of its time, the sparkling Overture to Figaro does not clearly reference themes from the opera to come. It does prepare us for the tone of the opera, though, which is humorous, quick, and clever. The Overture begins softly, with a swift introductory melody that explodes into a full tutti as the piece takes off.

The Overture is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings.

 

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Notes by Rachel Barton Pine

When Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms met in 1853, the twenty-one-year-old Joachim was already an established violin virtuoso and composer. The extremely gifted Brahms, two years younger, was virtually unknown. They quickly became close friends and began a musical interchange that lasted throughout their lives.

Brahms and Joachim challenged each other constantly, trading counterpoint exercises along with their correspondence. In 1853, they roomed together in Göttingen, and Brahms began to study orchestration with Joachim. Joachim served as a mentor to Brahms, introducing him to Schumann and other leading musicians of the day.

Throughout their friendship, Joachim was unwavering in his support of Brahms’s compositions. He performed his chamber works, premiering many of them, and conducted his symphonies. Joachim was particularly fond of the the Violin Concerto. He described the work, which Brahms dedicated to him, as one of “high artistic value” that roused in him “a peculiarly strong feeling of interest.”

Brahms began composing his Violin Concerto in the summer of 1878, during a vacation on Lake Wörther in Pörtschach, Carinthia (Austria). On August 22, Brahms sent the manuscript of the violin part to Joachim with this note: “Naturally I wish to ask you to correct it. I thought you ought to have no excuse – neither respect for the music being too good nor the pretext that orchestrating it would not merit the effort. Now I shall be satisfied if you say a word and perhaps write in several: difficult, awkward, impossible, etc.” Thus began one of the most intriguing musical exchanges in history.

By the time Joachim premiered the concerto in Leipzig on January 1, 1879, the piece had undergone considerable changes. Two middle movements had been removed and replaced by a newly written Adagio, resulting in the three-movement concerto we know today. (Both of the original middle movements are now lost. Many scholars think that the Scherzo may have been converted into the Allegro appassionato of the Second Piano Concerto.) The score was passed back and forth at least a half dozen times before the premiere, and the two friends’ debate over revisions, which is clearly evident in the surviving manuscript, has been left for posterity. In the end, Brahms incorporated most of Joachim’s suggested orchestral changes but considerably fewer of his revisions to the solo violin part.

The first movement of the Brahms Concerto follows the example of both Joachim and Beethoven in integrating the solo part with the orchestral writing. Often the solo violin plays counter-melody while other instruments play the main material. Brahms left the composition of the cadenza to the performer. Joachim wrote his own cadenza, which remains the one most frequently performed, though there is some evidence that Brahms had a hand in its creation. Brahms wrote to Elizabet von Herzogenberg of an early performance, “The Cadenza sounded so beautiful at the actual concert that the public applauded it into the start of the Coda.”

The Brahms Concerto is often described as “masculine,” due in large part to its robust first movement. I am continually awed by the majestic and inexorable qualities of such sections as the opening solo and the broken octaves in the development. If the Beethoven Concerto captures the beauty of God’s creation, the Brahms Concerto conveys its magnitude and power.

Many in the first generation of violinists exposed to the concerto did not recognize its brilliance. Referring to the second movement, Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate complained that he had to stand on stage while the oboe played the only good melody in the whole piece. This comment illustrates the difference between the straightforward melodic concept of the Franco-Belgian virtuoso school and the more complex treatment employed by Brahms and his musical compatriots. Simple in structure, this movement contains some of the most profoundly beautiful music ever written for the violin.

Brahms drew inspiration for the third movement from the Finale of Joachim’s “Hungarian” Concerto. Here Brahms’s rhythmic vitality and melodic exuberance evoke the same mood as do other Hungarian-inspired works, but without relying on gypsy tunes or the gypsy scale. Unlike the headlong rush that concludes the Joachim Concerto, the poco piu presto at the end of Brahms’s Concerto calls for a marchlike, steady beat, and even implies a slight ritard in the final bars. The concerto ends with D Major chords that confer a feeling of genuine, well-earned triumph.

I have been fascinated with the Brahms Concerto since my earliest violin lessons. I began studying it when I was 14, and it rapidly became a mainstay of my repertoire. It was with the Brahms Concerto that I won several of my international prizes and made many of my debuts in Europe, America, and Israel. It remains one of the most fulfilling works I perform.

 

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

The second half of the nineteenth century was not a particularly good period in the German symphonic tradition. The number of symphonies being written dwindled as composers concentrated on other forms. Richard Wagner famously claimed that the symphony was dead as Europe tried to recover from the half century of political unrest in the wake of the Napoleonic wars.

The flip side of the post-war confusion was a surge in nationalistic sentiment, which resulted in a number of commissions; This effort to reclaim and/or redefine elements special to national cultures impacted the work of a number of composers, including Antonín Dvořák. Although, as musicologist David Hurwitz notes, Dvořák was especially successful at reconciling the genre’s “classical roots with the Romantic love of virtuoso display, heightened emotion expression, integration of ethnic or national musical elements, and colorful exploitation of the full resources of the modern orchestra,” he was not a musical revolutionary. On the contrary, Dvořák loved the symphonic tradition, and his music skirts the divide between “respectful homage and originality of form and content.” In Europe, Dvořák was known especially for his compositions that made use of Slavic folk music, a usage that would serve him well abroad as well.

In 1893, Dvořák accepted a posting as Director of the National Conservatory in New York City. Part of his charge during his tenure there was to write a new work reflecting his impressions of America. This work became his Symphony “From the New World,” or simply, “New World.”

As we can see from his extensive use of folk music in his earlier works, Dvořák held a deep-seated conviction that folk music was key to developing an authentic national voice or style in music. For America, he believed that this folk music was best represented by Negro and Native American Indian themes. Needless to say, this opinion was highly debated, but Dvořák had plenty of support to work as he wished.

One of Dvořák’s students, Harry Burleigh, played a very important role in the conception of the “New World” Symphony and is credited with introducing Dvořák to the songs that he finally used in the work. In his own program note on the 'New World' Symphony, Burleigh wrote: “There is a tendency in these days to ignore the negro elements in the “New World” Symphony, shown by the fact that many of those who were able in 1893 to find traces of negro musical color all through the Symphony, though the workmanship and treatment of the themes was and is Bohemian, now cannot find anything in the whole four movements that suggests any local or negro influence, though there is no doubt at all that Dr. Dvořák was deeply impressed by the old Negro Spirituals and also by the Foster songs.

“It was my privilege to repeatedly sing some of the old Plantation songs for him at his home in E. 17th St. and one in particular, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” greatly pleased him, and part of this old Spiritual will be found in the second theme of the first movement of the Symphony…. The similarity is so evident that it doesn’t even need to be heard; the eye can see it. Dvořák just saturated himself with the spirit of these old tunes and then invented his own themes.”

Music critic James Huneker reportedly remarked, half joking, that maybe Dvořák only came to the United States to “rifle us of our native ore.” However, he didn’t actually copy the melodies but used them as aesthetic inspiration (with the possible exception of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as mentioned by Burleigh).

In the first movement, Dvořák makes a point of integrating his melodic material strictly into the traditional forms. Peress uses the term “old-fashioned,” and explains that “however unusual, [it] has as much right to be used as part of a large classical design as any theme by Beethoven.” The exposition presents the main thematic material, and Dvořák cleverly incorporates a bit of call and response into the first subject. The second subject in the flute is a mirror theme and the first reference to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Dvořák calls for the exposition to be repeated, something he hadn’t done in previous symphonies.

The second movement, which Peress calls “the famous largo,” features a lovely chorale in the brass and one of the most well-known solos for English horn in the repertoire. “Attempting to describe it is like trying to analyze the taste of a ripe peach … [it represents a] primal realm of musical being … [with] pristine simplicity of utterance.” Burleigh tells us that Dvořák used “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” verbatim here: “It was not an accident. He did it quite consciously…. He tried to combine Negro and Indian themes.”

Burleigh also sheds light on another important reference to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha":

"Pleasant was the journey homeward!/ All the birds sang loud and sweetly/ Songs of happiness and heart’s-ease;Sang the bluebird, to Owaissa,“Happy are you, Hiawatha,/ Having such a wife to love you!”/ Sang the robin, the Opeechee,/ “Happy are you, Laughing Water,/ Having such a noble husband!”

Burleigh claimed that Hiawatha “had a great effect on him and he wanted to interpret it musically.”

The third movement begins similarly to some of Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances,” and the scherzo character brightens things in the wake of the Largo. The main folk reference in this movement appears in the Trio section, which features a tune similar to “Over the River and Through the Woods, to Grandmother’s House We Go.

The finale opens with a marchlike melody underscored by what Peress calls Dvořák’s “most graphic train tunes … [in reference to the] huffing and puffing continuation in triplets on the strings and horns.” The image is topped off with the “hiss of escaping steam” at the end of the section, rendered by the suspended cymbal. The secondary melody is presented by the clarinets and is a lovely foil to the mechanical element of the trains. In the development section, Dvořák revisits all the principal themes from the previous movements before heading into the recapitulation, where the brass chorale with timpani reinforces the climax. Peress describes the transition to the coda as “mournful,” and the “ensuing grinding dissonances in the brass, produced by the collision of the main theme of the finale with the first movement’s motto, offer the greatest surprise of all: this is actually a tragic finale, like the Seventh [Symphony’s].”

Huneker praised Dvořák for his “fresh, vigorous talent … [he] was a born Impressionist, and possessed a happy colour sense in his orchestration.” Unfortunately, Dvořák didn’t write any more symphonies after this one, which became his farewell to the genre.

The “New World” Symphony is scored for pairs of flutes (one doubling piccolo), oboes (one doubling English horn), clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, and trombones, and bass trombone, tuba, four horns, timpani, triangle, cymbals, and strings.

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Beethoven's Emperor

Stewart Goodyear, piano
Giordano Bellincampi, conductor

Program:

Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 5

Brahms - Symphony No. 2

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

It’s ironic that Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto bears its title. While Beethoven, inspired by the young Napoleon’s political ideas, initially dedicated his Third Symphony to the French general, he famously scratched out this dedication upon hearing that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor. The concerto is in fact dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, a longtime patron of Beethoven’s who had fled Vienna due to the Napoleonic wars.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey, the renowned writer and composer, remarks on “the E-Flat Concerto, Op. 73, which the wrathful republican ghost of Beethoven forbids me to call by its popular English title of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto.” He considered the title “vulgar” and refused to use it.  However, musicologist Victor Lederer aptly points out that the name is “welded so tightly to the work that it stands as identification and little else…. [And] majesty … [is] evident in all three movements.”

In this concerto, Beethoven’s voice is unmistakable, with less evidence of Mozart’s or Haydn’s influences than in his earlier piano concerti. This is immediately apparent from the first three majestic, fortissimo chords that immediately give way to unfolding piano cadenzas, establishing the work’s harmonic base. This launches a movement that is one of Beethoven’s longest, characterized by extraordinary power and composure. Lederer writes that it is “without question an epic utterance.”

The orchestra then presents the main theme in a proud, march-like manner that Lederer refers to as a sort of all-pervading “Olympian calm.” The timpani is prominent, reinforcing the idea of the piece’s martial bearing. After the piano’s second entrance, Beethoven gives us the development section. Listen for the gorgeous melodies passed between the solo piano and the woodwinds. The cadenza for this movement is Beethoven’s own.

The second movement patiently unfolds a gentle theme in B Major. The strings, muted by rubber or wooden mutes on the bridges of their instruments, give a cooled, almost shimmering effect to the “hymnlike second movement … hypnotic in its … tranquil beauty” (Lederer). In this movement, the piano acts as a delicate filigree, soaring over the plucked strings and touching certain chords with soft phrases.

The last movement is a rondo, a form that typically alternates a main theme with contrasting episodes.  In this case, however, there are no contrasting episodes! Tovey notes, “The closing rondo, again one of Beethoven’s largest essays in the form, is an immense and intoxicating dance…. No question that Bartok, composer of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, knew this wonderful page!” He goes on to note that one of the main things that makes this concerto so effective is Beethoven’s “power of conveying an impression of vastness in a short time…. Thus, Beethoven maintains his powerful structural grip all the way to the final notes of this vast rondo movement.”

The whole concerto is massive in breadth and in both technical and musical difficulty. Lederer jokingly says that no one would describe is as intimate, but this doesn’t preclude it from being counted as one of the greatest contributions to the repertoire, and one of Beethoven’s best.

The “Emperor” Concerto is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, as well as timpani, strings, and solo piano. The Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig premiered it in November 1811.  

 

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

Though he took nearly two decades to write his First Symphony, Johannes Brahms completed his Second during the summer of 1877 in only a few months while he was visiting the southern Austrian countryside. Musicologist Walter Frisch suggests that the generally sunny character of the Second Symphony owes something to the pastoral setting in which Brahms found himself.

This sunniness is a bit of a departure for Brahms, whose work in general, whether melancholy or joyful, usually aims for the intense, exhibiting a fierceness that is somewhat tempered here. Brahms described the Second Symphony to his friend, music critic Eduard Hanslick, as “so cheerful and lovely that you will think I wrote it specially for you or even a young lady!”

The Second Symphony is extraordinarily successful with audiences. Though Brahms has a reputation as an exacting musical craftsman, he had a soft spot for an unforgettable melody. The melodies of this symphony owe a debt to both folk song and art song. Musicologist David Hurwitz explains, “In his second symphony, Brahms takes a major step toward reconciling the Romantic love of self-contained, beautiful melodies with the demands of large-scale form, and he does it in the most radical, indeed obsessive way possible.”

Though this symphony abounds with radiantly hummable melodies, the structures that support these melodies are meticulous and elaborate. Underneath the gentle melodic contours, Brahms is continually varying his time signatures, slipping between duple and triple meters (between two and three pulses per section of music).  He uses elaborate rhythmic subdivisions to give a lilting quality to the phrase, maintaining momentum and creating contrast without upsetting the simplicity of the melodic line.

The first movement is marked Allegro non troppo – lively, but not too fast. It opens with a different timbre than any of Brahms’s other symphonies. Brahms calls for a tuba instead of the usual contrabassoon. The tuba adds a different touch of color and weight to the brass section, while the absence of the contrabassoon lightens the woodwinds, balancing the whole. Balance is incredibly important to Brahms, and we see him working to attain it on both large and small scales throughout the Second Symphony.

Despite the overall character of optimism there are moments of underlying tension. Conductor Vincenz Lachner reportedly asked Brahms, “Why do you throw into the idyllically serene atmosphere … the rumbling kettledrum, the gloomy lugubrious tones of the trombones and tuba? Would not that seriousness which comes later … have had its own motivation without these tones proclaiming bad news?” Brahms defended his choices, explaining that he “wanted to manage without [in the first movement].... [but] would have to confess that [he was] a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us.”

The Adagio non troppo is one of Brahms’s most original and harmonically expressive works. The tempo indication “Slowly, but not too much” allows for an increased flexibility in the phrasing, and the phrases seem to flow forward and pull backwards without regard to regular bar lines. The melody begins on the upbeat, and persistent syncopation highlights the free-floating nature of the melody. Of all of the movements, this one may be the most emotionally ambiguous, and reveals more of itself upon repeated hearings.

The Allegretto grazioso (briskly, gracefully) is the shortest movement in any of Brahms’s symphonies. It opens in the woodwinds, accompanied by string pizzicato (plucked strings). The first theme is graceful (as its title indicates) and spun out with clever phrase extensions and unexpected continuations. Brahms recollects bits of the earlier two movements and admits some hints of his melancholy, opening “another world that cannot easily be shut out.” Frisch suggests that this is “essentially [a conclusion to] that shadowy world of the adagio.”

The Allegro con spirito – lively and spirited – is even more straightforward and probably the most easily read of the four movements. It opens in the strings, with an intense, whispered passage played sotto voce and piano. Everyone playing together so purposefully in the subdued dynamic gives the impression of huge force held in check. Frisch points out a lovely detail in the horns and trumpets as they “gently touch the first note only, like a brief flash of light.” The full orchestra bursts in then, and the celebration begins. The largamente section that follows manages to broaden the sound rather than slow or diminish it. Tovey likens the recapitulation to “the grey daylight on a western cloud-bank opposite the sunrise.” It is true that a lot of commentators seem to get hung up on the cloud shadows that Tovey mentions – that is, the darker moments – but it wouldn’t be real Brahms if these shadows weren’t there. Frisch describes the overall character as one of “prevailing cheerfulness and … genuine jubilation,” and though hints of the Adagio do creep in to provide an element of reflection, Hurwitz calls this finale “the giddiest music [Brahms] ever wrote.”

This symphony is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, and four horns, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

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