1865 – 1931
Overture to Maskarade (1906)
Maskarade is a comic opera based on a play by Ludvig Holberg. The story is one of love and mistaken identity that unfolds with a series of glittering masked balls as its backdrop. In the overture, Nielsen draws the listener immediately into the opera’s atmosphere of high spirits and romantic intrigues. Punchy melodies sparkle with wit and humor, clothed in brilliant, inventive orchestration. The opera itself is seldom heard outside of Denmark, but its overture is performed frequently as one of the composer’s most widely circulated works in Europe and North America.
1841 – 1904
Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53 (1879)
The Bohemian people regarded music as a fundamental part of life. So, in keeping with the tradition of his culture, young Dvořák learned to play the violin, and soon composed and played dance tunes and folk melodies in the village band. A local teacher recognized the young boy’s innate talent, taught the boy viola, piano, and organ, but soon recommended that the 16-year-old enter the Organ School in Prague. The young musician struggled against hunger and extreme poverty, but ultimately earned a position in the orchestra of the National Opera. Music had become his life (along with an addiction to trains). He composed a prolific number of works, eventually attracting the attention of famed Brahms and fellow Czech, Smetana.
After receiving recognition for his Slavonic Dances, the 38-year-old Dvořák’s career was launched, and next came the 1879 Violin Concerto. This work was initially looked down upon by critics because of its failure to observe standard German tradition and form. Rather, the Concerto was of a folksy, exotic style which pleased its large audiences.
The First Movement begins with a four bar, fanfare-like orchestral introduction before the solo violin enters with its main theme, which features dashing, daring leaps in an unusual improvisatory, rhapsodic flavor. What follows is a sedate, lyrical second theme. Throughout the movement, a gypsy fiddling tradition and the feeling of the uncontainable Hungarian spirit play roles in this Slavic work. The customary recapitulation of opening material is eliminated, and is replaced by a brief cadenza and interlude that lead directly into the Second Movement.
Its opening section is in a serene major key, while a contrasting middle section features a stormy minor key. Throughout, the soloist plays florid passages that act as embellishments to melody played by the orchestra. The beautifully soaring lyricism of this movement makes it a special favorite, and thus it is often played as an independent piece.
The Third Movement is filled with Bohemian-flavored dance and song characteristics. The main theme is a furiant, a Czech dance of rapid nature, which is reprised in brilliant instrumentation near the end. The dance is played by cellos and oboes imitating bagpipes. Shortly before the end of the movement is a wistful dumka melody, exhibiting a gentle contrast to the furiant.
1813 – 1883
Introduction to Act III of Lohengrin (1848)
Transformation Music from Act I of Parsifal (1879)
Lohengrin is a chivalric melodrama that plays spiritual purity against evil. The barnstorming Prelude to Act III is vividly colorful, and prepares the way for the curtain to rise on a wedding scene.
Parsifal is Wagner’s last opera, and its three acts are witness to a stage-consecrating festival drama based on a medieval legend and poem. The Transformation Music accompanies the Knights of the Holy Grail as they enter the Hall of the Grail. The musical themes are mostly solemn (Lutherans may recognize Wagner’s use of the “Dresden Amen”), but at one point a wrenchingly sorrowful theme rises out of the orchestra, representing the knight Amfortas, who was entrusted to guard the relics but succumbed to temptation.
1844 – 1908
“Danse Indienne” from Mlada (1890)
Mlada is an opera-ballet in four acts that recounts a fantasy tale about the ancient pagan Slavs of the Baltic seacoast. Three national dances are featured in Act II amidst a midsummer festival of dancing and frolicking. The “Danse Indienne” allowed Rimsky-Korsakov to indulge his genius for composing what the Russians thought of as “Oriental” melodies - complex, sinuous, and played by combinations of woodwinds with underpinnings of a snare drum. During the dance, the spirit of the deceased Mlada appears.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
1840 – 1893
“Cossack Dance” from Mazeppa (1883)
Based on a narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin, the story concerns itself with a young woman whose powerful love draws her into a catastrophic, downward spiral. The
“Cossack Dance” (Hopak) is a national Ukrainian dance usually performed by athletic males. It features acrobatic jumps and spins, and often has battlefield “fights” depicted in pantomime form.
1858 – 1924
Intermezzo from Suor Angelica (1918)
Puccini followed in the tradition of Rossini and Verdi but also was aware of the developments by his contemporaries Debussy, Stravinsky, and even Schoenberg. Suor Angelica is the middle opera in the series of three one-act operas Puccini called Il Trittico. Sister Angelica is from a wealthy family that has committed her to a convent because of bearing a child out of wedlock, and she has just learned that the son she has been imagining for seven years actually died of a fever two years ago. She has a vision that she will join him in heaven, and during the Intermezzo she is seen preparing a fatal mixture of herbs that she intends to drink.
1864 – 1949
“Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome (1905)
The setting is the court of King Herod in the Middle East around 30 A.D. Herod, in the mood for some entertainment on his birthday, asks his beautiful young stepdaughter Salome to dance in return for anything she wants. Her desire is for the head of John the Baptist delivered on a plate. The fulfillment of this is even too much for Herod, and as the final curtain comes down he orders Salome to be slain by the palace guards.
The dance’s origin is from Oscar Wilde’s l891play Salome, who transformed the Biblical image of Salome into an incarnation of female lust. The opera (with its “Dance of the Seven Veils”) received rave reviews around Europe, but was immediately cancelled after its New York 1907 debut; it was considered “moral stench.”