Saturday, April 26, 2014 | The Fountains of Rome
Notes researched and written by Joan Olsson
WOLFGANG A. MOZART
1756 – 1791
Symphony # 25 in G minor 1773
Symphony #25 (the “Little” G-minor), one of only two of Mozart’s written in a minor key, features an array of distinguishable, stylistic traits: vivid syncopations, sharp dissonances and vivid dynamics, all creating an increased level of dramatic tension. It is thus noticeably different from the charming, finely crafted music of its musical contemporaries. History books consider it an offshoot of older peer Franz Joseph Haydn’s compositional “sturm und drang period (storm and stress).” The young 17-year-old was unhappily stuck in his hometown of Salzburg, while under the domination of a cold, harsh, unappreciative Archbishop who treated him as a menial slave. Adding to such misery was a suffocating, emotionally controlling father whom he still yearned to please. The symphony may be revealing the composer’s tensions and stresses that spill out often in the work.
The opening of the First Movement, throbbing with syncopated string figures and dramatic arpeggios, bristles with heated energy. It is small wonder that Milos Forman chose it to open the film Amadeus, underscoring a horse-driven coach racing to the bedside of a suicidal Salieri. The fiery music often returns despite moments of respite.
The Second Movement is the only one of four that does not begin with jagged, sharp edges. Rather, Mozart writes a gracious dialogue between muted violins and bassoons, musically creating a snapshot of 18th century gentility. The stern and somber Third Movement (Minuetto) is decidedly not for dancing; in fact it often resembles a rhythmic peasant stomp. The mid-section trio is dream-like, serene music for woodwinds; its restrained style is one that the commissioned Mozart often used for social functions. The Fourth Movement restores the tension and turbulence of the first movement, and adds whirling strings before ending in a brusque coda.
1890 – 1959
Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra 1955
Bohuslav Martinů was born in a small border town of Bohemia and Moravia (now Czech Republic). Violin lessons from a village teacher revealed his strong musical aptitude, and the townspeople funded the young boy’s musical studies at Prague Conservatory. Bohuslav showed little interest in the school’s rigid pedagogy and hours of required practice; he transferred from violin studies to compositional studies. Ultimately the conservatory expelled him for “continuous, incorrigible negligence of studies.”
In spite of his failure at teacher-directed studies, Martinů was proficient on the violin, and was accepted to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Never far from a workaholic love of composition, he increasingly felt the need to return to structured guidance — first back to Prague Conservatory and then to Paris for a long-term commitment with composer Albert Roussel. It was this teacher who gently nudged him to develop his own compositional style through a familiarization with contemporary styles and trends other than the German-Romantic tradition. In addition to assimilating jazz, neoclassicism, surrealism, and ballet music, Martinů also took a hard look at his Bohemian, Moravian and Czech musical roots for ideas and influences.
As the German army conquered the European continent during the 1930s, Martinů fled occupied Paris because of having been blacklisted for his connections to the Czech resistance. Ultimately he reached the United States in 1941, knowing that Sergei Koussevitzky had already introduced Americans to his work. In addition to numerous commissions (including 6 symphonies), Martinů accepted teaching stints at the Mannes College of Music, Princeton, and the Berkshire Music Center. Notable students included Alan Hovhaness, H. Owen Reed, Jan Novak and Burt Bacharach.
He became an American citizen but homesickness drove him back to Europe. A communist take-over of Prague in 1947 thwarted the composer’s dream of returning to his homeland. He settled in Nice, became composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome, and relocated to Switzerland where he died in 1959. Twenty years later his body was reburied in the family grave at Policka.
While hardly the most influential composer of his generation, Martinů forged a musical individuality. By the l930s his work was thought to have reached its maturity through a highly personalized distillation of Czech folk music, French impressionism, Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, the English madrigal, the Baroque concerto grosso, and 1920s jazz. His body of 400 works included 18 operas, 30 concertos, and 70 chamber works. Although having expressed much tragedy in music, Martinů was essentially a creator of joyous and life-affirming music.
The seventeen-minute Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra was written in 1955, and became a standard piece of worldwide concert repertoire. The composition follows no distinct form; instead, it is rhapsodic and therefore the form is difficult to categorize. Clearly present throughout is the solo oboe in a consistent exchange of technical virtuosity with soaring lyrical beauty displaying the instrument throughout its range. The First Movement is a sparkling, frolicking, wistful pastorale. It is a technical showpiece for oboe with orchestral folk melody accompaniment, and includes frequent piano embellishment (a Martinů trademark). There are fragments suggestive of bebop, jazz, and Stravinsky compositional styles. The Second Movement begins with a long, dark theme primarily for strings before the oboe wanders in with a distressed chromatic melody over a lengthy, shimmering piano accompaniment, and orchestral interplays follow. A rumbling piano launches the Third Movement’s jittery folk dance with the oboe bouncing over orchestral ostinatos (repeated phrases). After an agitated orchestral build-up, the oboe offers a full cadenza. A bright, animated orchestra returns but veers into darker material before the oboe dances the score back into the light with an upbeat, whimsical coda. The movement includes a lengthy, frilly, gay series of oboe trills before the movement ends with a sudden “hop.”
1879 – 1936
The Fountains of Rome 1916
At the beginning of the 20th century, a school of young Italian composers hoped to restore the long-lost traditions of Italian instrumental styles that had been long buried under the country’s fervent devotion to operatic form. Foremost of these composers was Ottorino Respighi. To help create new Italian instrumental music and to extend his own compositional horizons, the 22-year-old Bologna Conservatory graduate and professional violinist left Italy to study abroad. In Russia he studied composition under incomparable orchestral master Rimsky-Korsakov. From there he went to Berlin to continue his explorations with another colorful genius, Max Bruch.
Respighi became a musical nationalist, first by reviving Italy’s music heritage, with emphasis on Italian instrumental music going back to pre-Baroque times. In the midst of exploration, he became aware of the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss. They would spark a “first hit,” The Fountains of Rome.
Composed in 1914-1916, this work is the first of a trilogy celebrating Rome’s history and culture. The composer’s goal was to express in music the sentiments and visions suggested by four of Rome’s fountains at the hour in which the character of each is most in harmony with its surrounding landscape.
The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn: Muted rustling in the violins and soft woodwinds give an impressionistic, bucolic, pastoral picture of early morning that includes prominent birdcalls. In the score Respighi wrote, “Droves of cattle pass and disappear in the fresh, damp mists of the dawn.” The modal oboe melody reflects music from the Middle Ages.
The Triton Fountain in the Morning: A sudden loud blast on the horns above a brilliantly orchestrated trill for piccolo and triangle introduces the Triton Fountain. They form the image of a summoning of troops made up of naiads and tritons while mingling in a frenzied dance amidst jets of water.
The Trevi Fountain at Midday: An undulating, solemn theme introduces an image of the fountain itself. The theme passes from woodwinds to brass in a triumphant manner. The ensuing pomp announces the passage of Neptune in a chariot drawn by sea horses and followed by a parade of sirens and tritons. The procession vanishes while faint triumphal blasts are heard in the distance.
The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset: The final movement opens with the dream-like sounds of an English horn accompanied by “trickling water” as depicted by glockenspiel and celesta. It is the nostalgic hour of sunset, and the air is full of tolling bells, moving leaves, tweeting birds – all suggestive of the soft flow of sunset. Then everything fades peacefully into the quiet night.