Program Notes - March 1, 2008
CARL MARIA von WEBER
Born November 18, 1786 in Eutin Oldenburg, Germany
Died June 5, 1826 in London, England
Euryanthe Overture (1823)
For someone who is widely considered the Father of German Romantic opera, Carl Maria von Weber is sorely underplayed in today’s opera houses. Der Freischütz remains the only one of his ten operas in the common repertory, and the rest of his operas (including Euryanthe) mostly sit in libraries collecting dust. Thankfully, Weber’s music has found a home on the concert stage. His concertos and concert pieces for clarinet, bassoon and horn are an important part of the solo wind repertoire, and many of his operas’ overtures (Der Freischütz, Euryanthe, and Oberon especially) have become standard fare for symphony concerts. The most probable cause for the poor success of Weber’s operatic oeuvre lies in the libretti. With few exceptions, the great opera composers all had librettists with whom they developed a strong bond. (Richard Wagner solved the composer-librettist problem by writing his own libretti). Weber, on the other hand, went through nine different librettists in only ten operas (the librettist for Euryanthe, Helmina von Chézy, being a particularly poor choice). One can only wonder how the world of opera would be different if Weber had found his own Lorenzo Da Ponte (Mozart’s librettist) to collaborate with.
The overture, aptly marked con molto fuoco (with much fire) begins with an arpeggiated triad in the upper strings and races off with a bravura run to the top of the fingerboard. Interestingly enough, Richard Wagner (who greatly admired Weber) uses the same type of heraldic motif in his Prelude to the third act of Lohengrin. The winds take over for a while with a noble processional theme, but the subsequent rise in intensity brings back the bravura motif in the strings, who rush to a dramatic outburst followed by a pregnant fermata (pause). A timpani roll (indicating a change of scene) ushers in a new theme, the love aria. In listening to this melody it is important to remember that even though the large leaps in the melody float by easily for the violins, they take considerable effort for a singer and were written to provide ample opportunity for expressive virtuosity. The bravura motif quickly returns in the violins, but gives way to an incessant monotone ostinato on Bb. As the texture thins, the winds sustain diminished chords over the ostinato, producing an eerie effect that foreshadows the ghastly scene to come. In it, the ghost of a young woman who committed suicide upon learning that her lover was killed in battle appears to her brother to plead her case. Because of her sin, her soul can find no rest and she is forced to wander the earth. This highly dramatic point is represented by eight muted violins playing almost inaudibly. Later on in the opera Euryanthe will redeem the dead woman’s soul by shedding tears over a magic ring (another possible source of inspiration for Wagner). Once the ghost is gone, the cellos and basses bring back the processional theme, but more ponderous and in minor. The upper strings join in canon, and the ensuing fugue brings the orchestra to a climax that culminates in the bravura fanfare from the beginning of the overture. The love aria returns, but this time pompous and triumphant; it has become a wedding march. The ending is pure operatic spectacle, one of Weber’s specialties.
Born January 31, 1797 in Vienna, Austria
Died November 19, 1828 in Vienna, Austria
Wanderer Fantasy (1822)
One of the greatest ironies in music history is that Franz Schubert’s notoriously difficult ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy was written to fulfill a commission by an amateur musician. No other piano work of Schubert’s requires nearly as much technical facility, and even today almost 200 years after its completion, it remains one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. There is a story that Schubert himself, frustrated at his own inability to play the finale, leapt from the piano in disgust during a concert and said, ”The devil may play it, for I cannot!” The devil he referred to would be Franz Liszt, then only eleven years old. Although he became a great composer in his own right, Liszt was primarily known as a concert pianist (he invented the piano recital), and his more than 250 transcriptions (of which the ‘Wanderer fantasy is one) did much to improve and extend the piano repertoire of the 19th century. While he did play the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy in its original solo piano version on occasion, he felt that a proper rendition of the piece required greater sonic resources, so in 1851 he transcribed it for piano and orchestra.
The ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy gets its name (and thematic material) from a song (‘Der Wanderer’ D. 493) that Schubert published in 1821, only one year before he wrote the Fantasy. The song’s melody appears in its original form in the second section and in slightly altered forms for the other three sections. Schubert’s use of “thematic transformation” as the primary vehicle for musical development was probably one of the things that attracted Liszt to the piece in the first place. In his own music, Liszt preferred the narrative approach to musical form over the more traditional sonata-allegro structure, and he often used the transformation of a single theme to represent the development of a character.
While the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy has four clearly distinct sections, it would probably be inaccurate to refer to them as “movements.” Schubert conceived of the piece as an unbroken whole, and the four sections are traditionally played without separation.
I. Allegro con fuoco ma non troppo - The orchestra commences without piano, playing a grandiose theme at fortissimo. As with any good theme, Schubert’s melody is complex enough to be interesting, but flexible enough to undergo transformation and still retain its identifiable properties. After the initial orchestral statement, the solo piano responds with the same material in pianissimo. Liszt’s arrangement identifies the orchestra and piano as antagonists, casting the piano in the role of underdog. The orchestra joins in softly, but the piano breaks free with a brief, syncopated cadenza, leading into a slight variation on the theme - a lyrical excursion in E major which adds a double-neighbor figure to the end of each phrase. When the piano has had its say, the strings take over, keeping the same soft texture. The brass follow close on their heels and the combined orchestra brings back the grandiose theme in its original form. This time around Schubert demonstrates his ability to modulate seamlessly from key to key with ease. The first modulation takes the theme to a- the relative minor- and the subsequent meandering piano cadenza travels to one of the most distant keys possible - Eb major. At this point, the double-neighbor figure from the first variation becomes the building block of a new melody, marked dolce con grazia (sweet with grace) and played by solo piano. The oboe chimes in, but both are overpowered by the brass, which continue to herald the original unaltered theme. The piano combats the orchestra with virtuosic abandon, but the fracas eventually loses momentum, and the easing tempo transitions organically into the second section.
II. Adagio - This is the melody from Schubert’s song “Der Wanderer.” The somber, melancholy aria in c# minor is so hauntingly beautiful that the piano endeavors to play it a second time, but on the repeat Schubert deftly maneuvers to the relative major, allowing the sun to come out of the clouds. Throughout this movement Schubert always keeps the melody somewhere. When it comes in the orchestra, the piano provides an elaborate obbligato, and when the right hand of the piano plays the melody the left hand retreats into simple accompaniment. If there is a section where Liszt’s orchestration merits a standing ovation, it is here. A solo cello sings out, and is then replaced by the French horn, but the piano overpowers everything with a rapid sequence of octaves in thirty-second notes. As the pianistic fury begins to wind down the first violins bring back the theme twice more in major. But even in the final bars when the horn dies out on the last fragment of the theme, the piano continues to play rapid thirty second notes to the end unabated.
III. Presto - In this charming scherzo the original ‘Wanderer’ theme is rhythmically obscured, but the notes and contour of the melody are still identifiable. The second theme is an elegant, quick waltz. In this movement, the persistent momentum is maintained by a single long-short-long rhythmic figure (known in poetry as a cretic foot). There is a short lyrical interlude, but the cretic rhythm is insuppressible and returns with fervor. The ensuing frenzy leads without pause into the finale.
IV. Allegro - The theme here forms a fugue subject, the chromatic alteration of which gives the entire section a slightly spooky feel. The chromaticism and fugal treatment of the theme in this section looks forward to the innovative techniques of Liszt’s own “Faust” Symphony (first performed in 1857). As the orchestra and piano battle for supremacy both adversaries hold their ground, but in the final measures the piano is overpowered by the orchestra, which races to the finish line victorious.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria
Symphony No. 6 in F major- “Pastorale” (1808)The name of Ludwig van Beethoven needs no introduction. From elementary school general music class on we are told he was a firebrand, a musical renegade that flouted social convention, even a boorish lout. Copies of his fiery-eyed, wild-haired portrait (courtesy Joseph Karl Stieler) are ubiquitous, and one rarely enters a music school without noticing his bust in the place of honor, a grumpy, but passionate idol. This view of Beethoven is far from incorrect. In fact, it fits well with much of his music. Many of his works, such as the Fifth Symphony and the Piano Sonata No. 23 (Appassionata), reveal a hot-blooded Beethoven-- energetic with a quick temper. But there were other sides to Beethoven’s personality as well. He enjoyed long walks outside, claiming to receive inspiration from the peace and tranquility of nature. This is the Beethoven of the Pastorale Symphony, the nature lover and romantic.<.p>
Beethoven wrote small headings in the score of this symphony that helped identify his governing inspiration for particular movements, but whether or not this amounts to a full-fledged narrative program of the Lisztian variety is open to debate. Beethoven’s own words seem to indicate a less specific construal. According to him, the symphony is “more an expression of feeling than painting.” The notes for each movement (listed below) appear only as vague guidelines.
I – Pleasant feelings which awaken in men on arriving in the countryside
II – Scene by the brook
III – Merry gathering of country people [interrupted by]
IV – Thunder and storm
V – Shepherds' song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm
I. Allegro, ma non troppo – The violins begin the movement with a simple melody that comes to rest on an unstable chord - Beethoven’s invitation to commune with Nature. After a slight hold on the expectant sonority, the orchestra responds in the affirmative, and they embark on a stroll through the woods. This simple melody (and the one-measure motive from which it is drawn) dominates the exposition of the movement. The dynamic form of the movement is very different from the abrupt character of the parallel movement in the Fifth symphony: Long, extended crescendos create the sense of ascending a gentle slope. In the development, the one measure motive becomes a relentless, building ostinato, over which Beethoven achieves a sublime harmonic modulation. (Beethoven’s take on minimalism, over a century before the term was even coined.) It peaks and then subsides, reducing the motif even further to only two notes, a simple descending fourth. Throughout the movement, the constant repetition of small musical germs is like a line of footsteps, taking the country traveler in on a path through the landscape. The coda recalls the original melody, but instead of pausing on the expectant chord (as in the beginning), the melody continues up in an ascending pattern and resolves. The final bars seem to end strong, but the last two chords bring the dynamic suddenly back to piano, a reflective gesture that sets the mood for the next movement.
II. Andante molto moto – Beethoven creates an idyllic background for this “scene by the brook” right from the start. A lilting, stream-like figure flows in the lower strings while the first violins play a melody as beautiful as any Italian aria ever written. The clarinet and bassoon join the first violins, adding depth to the melodic texture. Underneath the melody, a pattering of sixteenth notes in the inner voices depict a gentle rippling brook, constantly flowing. After a final instance of the lilting figure, Beethoven uses the pattering sixteenth note motif to modulate, taking us through many foreign keys. The oboe picks up the melody, then the clarinet. As the development continues, it seems as though Beethoven departs further and further from the home key, but this tonal ambiguity soon emerges in F, the dominant of the home key, and we are assured safe passage to the tonal base of Bb. But what pastoral scene would be complete without a view of the wildlife? Near the end of the movement, the orchestra stops and solo woodwinds imitate birdsong in a cadenza. In this particular instance, Beethoven had a specific bird sound for each instrument in mind. In the score he wrote over the flute, oboe and clarinet parts Nachtigall, Wachtel, and Kuckuck, respectively. (In English -nightingale, quail, and cuckoo.)
III. Allegro - This country dance is a study in contrast. Three wholly different temperaments attend this gathering of country people. The first comes from the strings, a tiptoeing pianissimo scherzo - country children. Then the winds join in an off-kilter, legato passage - the country women. Finally, the horns join with sforzandos, creating commotion - the country men. In place of a trio (normally more subdued than the surrounding dance) Beethoven gives us a faster dance in duple time, rustic and unrefined. When the original country dance returns, it gains tempo and leads without break into the next movement.
IV. Allegro - On the heels of merrymaking, a storm approaches, foreshadowed by tremolos in the cellos and basses. When it arrives, timpani and brass simulate thunder and lightning. The storm subsides, and the sun shines briefly signaled by a small section in major, but the storm quickly returns. Strings simulate cascading rain with ascending and descending chromatic scales, and the brass and timpani become deafening. Slowly, the tumult moves away, but one can still make out distant thunder in the soft timpani rolls. The oboes play a short chorale which leads without break into the final movement.
V. Allegretto - A clarinet calls in the distance, seeing if the storm is truly gone. A horn echoes, and its assent brings in the first violins that take the call and transform it into a hymn, happy and thankful. The brass join, and the hymn grows in intensity, but the lower strings break out into a second theme, the uneven, swinging rhythm of which add laughter to the smiles. As the movement progresses, Beethoven uses the original hymn as the rondo (or recurring) theme, and it serves as the backdrop for many excursions and variations. The last instance of the rondo theme is the most reserved, but Beethoven recalls the majesty from earlier in the movement with the punctuation of two strong final chords.
double neighbor - an ornament which decorates a note by preceding it with both of its 'neighbors' (lower and higher)
ostinato - a repeated rhythmic figure, usually serving as a backdrop to other melodic activity.
sforzando - a heavy accent
Harrison Hollingsworth is the program annotator for Symphony in C.