1824 - 1884
Vltava (The Moldau) 1874
Bedřich Smetana was born in a small Bohemian town in what is now the southern part of the Czech Republic. At a very early age, the musical prodigy learned to play both violin and piano, and was first taught by his father, a brewmaster and amateur musician. His musical development was rapid, and as a young man he opened his own music school with the encouragement and help of Franz Liszt. It was Liszt who had greatly impressed the younger composer with his dramatic program music. As Smetana wrote to Liszt: “I cannot describe to you the soul-stirring impression your music has made on me. Such as become my credo.”
Smetana became fired up with a fierce patriotism and embarked on the cause of creating music based on Czech legends, history, geography, customs, and dances. A provincial theater for Czech music was established in 1861, for which Smetana composed a series of native-language Czech operas based on Czech themes. In 1874, at age 50, the composer filled a cycle of six symphonic poems called Má Vlast (My Fatherland) with folk legends and rhythms of Bohemian songs and dances. Fate intervened; during this time of a rapid outpouring of nationalistic themes, he became afflicted with total deafness. Although he still composed in a frenzy, soon came a deteriorating mind, followed by eventual death in a mental institution at age 60.
Among the six symphonic tone poems in Má vlast is Smetana’s most famous composition, “Vltava” (in German, “The Moldau”), a majestic portrait of the 270-mile river in land-locked Czechoslovakia. The tone poem takes the listener on a sensory journey down a breath-taking natural river, as expressed in musical imitation of the sights and sounds a traveler experiences. Completed in 1874, and still under the strong influence of Franz Liszt’s program music, the work was written amidst a 100-year Bohemian struggle for democracy and freedom from the Austria-Hungarian empire.
Smetana wrote his own preface to the tone poem as follows:
“The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the fairies in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St. John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad (Upper Castle), and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe (or Elbe, in German).”
Concerto Elegiaco (Concerto No. 3) 1985
Juan Leovigido Brouwer Mezquida (Leo) was born in 1939 in Havana, Cuba. Descended from a long and wide line of musicians and drawn to the sounds of Flamenco
music he embarked on a largely self-learned experience of skills necessary for the guitar.
His physician and amateur classical guitarist father took over the direction of this musically-determined boy, even though he didn’t read music and was taught by rote. At the end of 1952, Leo’s formal guitar instruction was transferred over to renowned Cuban
guitar pedagogue, Isaac Nicola. It was Nicola who opened the young student’s eyes and ears to Renaissance, Classical, and Romantic periods of music history, and it was at this time when Leo’s compositional bent became alive. What he wanted to do was “fill the gaps” in Cuban music history and repertoire, creating compositions that emphasized his Afro-Cuban music heritage.
After his debut as a guitar performer at age 17, he was awarded a scholarship to study composition at The Juilliard School, and followed this with both a teaching and composition-studying position at Hartt College in Connecticut. He claimed that the training at both programs was the only formal instruction he had received as a composer-to-be.
Brouwer then returned to his beloved Cuba, where under the new communist regime, he became a strong advocate of Cuban nationalism, unquestioningly loyal to Castro’s principles of communism. With governmental approval, he became globally known as a Cuban music ambassador of his own works and those of other non-European origin. The composer’s personal catalogue lists at least 200 works. Brouwer also has over 60 film scores to his credit (including Like Water for Chocolate), has established a radio station network, played in chamber orchestras, and re-energized the Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. Now approaching his eighties, he continues on the concert circuit abroad and remains an active composer and arranger of music from his family home in Cuba.
The Concerto Elegiaco (Concerto No. 3) was written for guitarist Julian Bream. The halting two-note theme first heard in the low strings helps set the elegiac tone of the work. The low notes at the end of the First Movement (Tranquillo) fade into the Interlude, in which a rhythmically free, improvisatory guitar line is woven around held notes in the strings. This proceeds without pause to the Finale, an energetic Toccata in which rapidly repeated notes are alternately played by the guitar, strings, and percussion. Very near the end, the halting, dirge-like notes of the First Movement return before a final burst of energy from the guitar and orchestra.
1906 - 1975
Suite from the film The Gadfly 1955
Shostakovich’s musical parents realized that by age 5, their son was unusually gifted. They had taken him to a performance of one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas, and noted that he was singing several of the opera arias afterward. Still, the young child’s musical training was delayed until age 9. His conservatory graduate mother did not believe in structured musical training before then.
During Shostakovich’s first year of piano instruction, he began composing. The spirit of the most recent Russian Revolution inspired his musical writing, and he responded by such pieces as Hymn to Liberty and the Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.
As a teenager, he was employed to accompany silent films in the theatre, and would become so absorbed in the screen activity that he would forget to play. Although fired as piano accompanist, he was permanently hooked on movies and the eventual soundtrack writing that followed.
At age 13, the boy entered the Leningrad Conservatory, where the Conservatory director and composer Alexander Glazunov claimed, “the boy’s gifts are comparable to Mozart’s. If asked, I would give up my food rations for him.” Shostakovich rose quickly to top recognition in the Soviet Union, after public praise for his Symphony No. 1, which had been a graduation requirement. His subsequent career was spent under the regimes of Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, and he had to weather the irrational and unpredictable winds of official opinion. Criticism mostly centered on his compositional endeavors as not having enough mass appeal. Music needed only to be simple, tuneful, optimistic, and glorifying of Soviet ideals.
Although remembered principally for large-scale orchestral works and concertos, Shostakovich’s output for the big screen was prolific. Between 1919 and l970, Shostakovich wrote more than 30 movie sound tracks, which tend to be light, simple, charming additions to the plots.
The 1955 film The Gadfly is a boisterous affair, a swashbuckling costume drama depicting the life of a Russian hero in 1830’s Italy. The setting gave the composer the excuse to borrow musical ideas from Italian Romantic composers (Verdi, Bellini), and to write pseudo-Neapolitan songs and folk tunes. Most famous are the catchy “Galop” and the lovely “Romance,” but the other five numbers of the suite hold their own in their surprisingly tonal and rhythmically straight-forward and melodic style.
Researched and written by Joan Olsson
Steven Errante, conductor
Unless indicated, all program notes are researched and written by Dr. Steven Errante.