1875 – 1937
“Ma Mere L’Oye” (Mother Goose Suite) 1910
Youngster Maurice Ravel was musically gifted and destined for a music career from early childhood. He entered the Paris Conservatory at age 14 where he studied for the next 15 years. From the beginning of his musical career Ravel followed a clear, direct path. He learned through studies of the classics that in order to know one’s own technique, one must learn the technique of others; no one ever finishes the jobs of learning and shaping a technique or a style.
The shy composer avoided tragedy in his art; his favorite themes dealt with Spanish rhythm, dance, comedy and enchantment. Ravel’s natural gift for orchestration and musical “coloring” created scores that were unmatched for his brilliant use of instrumental timbres. His music has been compared to French gardens in which trees and shrubs are trimmed to precise shapes and flowers are laid out in well-ordered patterns. He took painstaking time to polish each work to a shimmering crown of jewels; as a result the composer’s life-long output totaled fewer than 70 works.
Ravel was a complex, sensitive person with an unusual fascination with the world of children. A life-long collector of toys, he also loved children’s stories and illustrations, and often sneaked away from social get-togethers to play with the toys and games of youngsters in residence.
In 1908 the composer wrote a children’s piano duet for two of his young friends. The work consisted of five tableaus from ancient French fairy tales that dealt with moralistic issues. In translation the suite is “The Mother Goose Suite,” but the composer singled out a single image from each story rather than musically illustrate the whole plot. His representations are the musical equivalent of watercolors and etchings and contain a complete range of dynamics and emotion.
1810 – 1856
Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 1845
Few dispute that Robert Schumann was the most romantic of the Romantics, with musicologists talking of the new “hero” of the Romantic Era. In his approach to composition Schumann was the musical dissenter of his time. He saw little reason to honor the Classical structure because he recognized its strict limitations. As a result the adventurous Schumann was uncertain and melancholy even during his most productive years. He was plagued by personal psychological struggles and held concern for the future of the symphonic form since the most influential innovators of the time, Beethoven and Schubert, were in their graves.
It was in 1841 at the end of one of his many mental and physical convalescent periods that Schumann began working in symphonic form.
In his Symphony No. 2 the movements are interrelated by a recurrence of themes.
First Movement: The first motif appears in the brass during the brooding slow introduction to the first movement and returns later amid the turbulence of that same movement and is repeated again briefly in the second and fourth movements. Schumann wrote, “It is filled with struggle and is very capricious and obstinate in character.” The brass fanfare is heard simultaneously with a wavy theme pitched low in the strings. That line is as harmonically ambiguous as the brass fanfare is decisive. The music increases gradually, gaining tempo and conflicts erupt and warring elements clash before the finale, giving the impression that the darkness has been momentarily lifted.
Second Movement: This fast scherzo is a happy, spirited showcase for strings. The pace lets up for the movement’s two contrasting trios — the first being a melody shared by strings and woodwinds, while the second is a subdued meditation for strings and woodwinds. In the end, the brasses sing out their fanfare from the first movement.
Third Movement: This movement has long been regarded as one of the composer’s most sublime musical sections. Melancholic and tranquil, solo opportunities are provided for oboe, clarinet and bassoon.
Fourth Movement: From the robust march-like beginning to the long, optimistic ending, it is clear that Schumann has regained good physical and mental health. The joyful finale sweeps away the clouds that have been hanging over the symphony. The gentle theme (a solo oboe) appearing midway is by Beethoven from his song cycle To the Distant Beloved. The composer is paying tribute to his beloved wife Clara.
1864 – 1949
Der Rosenkavalier Suite (Rose Cavalier) 1910
Richard Strauss was considered one of the foremost and versatile composers and conductors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was known for creating a wide spectrum of works in different forms and style and particularly noted for his interpretations of his idol Mozart. Der Rosenkavalier is Strauss’ homage to Mozart and closely resembles The Marriage of Figaro with a similar convoluted, comical plot with moments of sadness and regret. The three-act opera brought Strauss great fame and financial success and became the most popular German opera of the 1900s. The eccentric, flamboyant composer began introducing himself as, “I am Strauss, composer of Der Rosenkavalier.”
It is an entertainingly frisky comedy — a half sentimental, half cynical story about life in 18th century Vienna during the reign of Maria Therese.
The main action revolves around an aging (mid-thirties) field marshal’s wife, Marschallin, who is in love with young, 17-year-old Octavian who, because of the age difference, will most likely leave her and fall in love with someone his own age. Prominently featured is a cousin, the bumbling, lecherous, obnoxious Baron who has arranged to marry young Sophe, daughter of a wealthy merchant. As tradition has it, Octavian is chosen as knight of the rose, presenter of a silver rose to the bride-to-be. The rose is offered in a glorious duet, but the situation also becomes “love at first sight” for Octavian and Sophe. The rest of the plot involves jealousy in operation, cross-dressing, humorous trickery and connivance, and show-stopping Viennese waltzes — a form not even in existence during the opera’s time period. Of strong musical appeal is a trio from Act III in which the saddened Marschallin surrenders Octavian to Sophe and the two lovers overflow with love and gratitude.
Nearly every work of Strauss’ begins with a great expansion of energy, a leaping upwards followed by a culmination of force, size and intricacy of parts. Strauss never lost the stamp of a Wagner worshipper and so melody lines are often very complex with lots of musical ornaments and runs. The orchestration is thick with sound as instrumental sections play with or against each other without pause. As a result Strauss’ music has the reputation of being incredibly difficult to perform. To quote renowned music critic Lawrence Gilman, “It is the orchestra, at the end, that caps the rough and tumble poetic comedy, and turns the horseplay into loveliness, crowning the drama with a quality of beauty that brought a new accent and unsuspected eloquence to musical art.”
PETER ILITCH TCHAIKOVSKY
1840 — 1893
SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN D MINOR, OP. 17 1872 and 1880
Symphony No. 2, Little Russian, stands among Tchaikovsky’s six other symphonies as an example of the Russian composer’s periodic venture into a nationalistic style of music. This symphony’s folk melodies originated from the area known as the Ukraine or “Little Russia.”
The “Russian Five” (composers Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Mussorgsky and Borodin) were ecstatic by the finished symphony. These composers, all preaching nationalistic music, felt that they had finally convinced the composer to focus his music around situations involving a Russian identity. But within seven years the dissatisfied Tchaikovsky tore up the original manuscript and replaced symphonic parts with a revision more Germanic in style. This revision is the one that is usually featured in today’s symphonic repertoire.
First Movement: Like almost every major work of Tchaikovsky’s, this begins with a slow introduction. A single horn sounds a melancholy Ukrainian song titled Down by Mother Volgathat sets the movement’s mood. Its downward swings and ways of traversing and re-traversing the same figures give the movement an unmistakably Russian flavor.
Second Movement: In this movement Tchaikovsky chose to eliminate the slow symphonic form, traditional in most second movements, and instead has written a march sounded by two “see-saw” timpani notes. The theme relies on a wedding march salvaged from the composer’s unfinished opera Undine. A charming rondo comes from the Russian song Spin, oh my Spinner before returning to the march.
Third Movement: This is an agitated scherzo with a rhythmic drive interrupted only by a whimsical trio emphasizing the woodwinds and reminiscent of a theme similar to one by Russian composer Borodin.
Fourth Movement: This proceeds after a brief fanfare with Tchaikovsky including the folk song Let the Crane Soar, a melody with a quirky meter suggestive of a clumsy waltz or rumba in staccato style. During his lifetime he gave credit to the Ukrainian butler-in-residence for having often sung this song while Tchaikovsky worked on the symphony in a nearby area.
Steven Errante, conductor
Unless indicated, all program notes are researched and written by Joan Olsson.