1803 – 1869
Overture to "The Corsair" — 1844
Hector Berlioz was born into an upper middle class family in Munich, Germany in 1803. Although the youngster showed great interest in musical sounds, he was provided no formal studies in music. Still, he explored music with instruments lying around the house — flute, guitar, and flageolet (a small flute-like recorder). The young teenager's preoccupation with an English tune (an American version of "The Bear Goes Over the Mountain") was picked up by ear. A patient preoccupation with this piece caught his father's attention, who then taught the youngster the rudiments of music notation. Egged on by this knowledge, the young boy taught himself chord formation and basic harmony from an old textbook. The young teen also learned the ranges and timbre of orchestral instruments, and began to hear them in his head in unusual sound combinations. He composed in silence and by ear, a habit he maintained for years.
Berlioz' parents ordained that young Hector would follow his father into medicine, so he entered medical school in Paris. After two miserable years, the 20-year- old rebelled against unpleasant medical experiences and slacked off in his studies. He began a laborious, self-study routine of compositional "mechanics," and after two tries he was accepted into the Paris Conservatory. After a rigorous concentration on musical studies, student Berlioz competed for the Prix de Rome and won it after four tries. He also composed the most famous of all his compositions, the five movement, autobiographic Symphonie Fantastiquefrom which the concept of Wagner's leitmotif sprang. In 1830 Berlioz received his conservatory degree and began his career as professional composer and conductor.
From the beginning, his compositions featured passionate expression, intense ardor, animated rhythms, and unexpected turns in style. The flamboyance of Victor Hugo's poetry and the dramatic intensity of Eugene Delacroix's painting found their counterpart in Berlioz's music. The historical trauma of the l830's was the best years of his musical creativity, featuring tone poems, a gigantic Requiem, and the opera Benvenuto Cellini. But concert audiences and opera aficionados grew unreceptive to the strange combination of instrumental clashes and stylistic unpredictability. The Berlioz music often required hundreds of musicians and staff, and audiences did not fill the concert halls. Ticket sales then did not meet the payroll.
Consequently the next 30 years found the composer earning a living from two other areas. One was as a tradition-breaking, popular conductor on the European continent. The second source of income came from journalism via music criticism, reviews and articles, with much writing explaining his own works to a puzzled, indifferent public. A pedagogic work, Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration, established the composer's reputation as an instrumental master. This work was to be closely studied by younger musicians Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss for their own tradition-breaking careers. Meanwhile his compositional work was now regarded as lacking freshness or innovation, and he was denied important positions and honors. The once-celebrated composer became compositionally silent for his last seven years; his death in Paris occurred in 1869 after a series of heart attacks. A hundred years would pass before Berlioz and his music slowly gained recognition as a prime, innovative force of late Romantic Era music, 1850-1900.
Overture to "The Corsair"
While vacationing in Nice in 1844, Berlioz buried himself in popular pirate romance novels. He began sketching out a tone poem based on a series of incidents in his life, including a love affair gone sour, a raging storm, and the friendship of a would-be pirate.
The Overture is introduced by an abrupt, startling crack of two chords and fiery flourishes of strings which alternate with agitated woodwind chords. This is followed by another quick turnabout into a slow, unfolding melody line that contains the main theme presented several times in different disguises. A rushing series of percussive chords expands on the startling beginning, and leads to a climax of blaring brass. The music heads brashly into a massive conclusion. This short overture delivers a breathless whirlwind of orchestral sound and color that provides a prelude to the future Late Romantic Era.
1864 – 1949
Four Last Songs — 1948
Richard Strauss, son of a virtuoso court orchestra horn player, was born in 1864 in Munich, Germany. By age 4 the child was clearly a musical wunderkind, and he began piano lessons followed by formal instruction in violin, harmony, and counterpoint. Encouraged by his parents to pursue a traditional academic program, he entered the University of Munich, but the drift to music studies was inevitable.
Strauss’s publisher sent some of his early work to conductor Hans von Bulow. The influential conductor hired Strauss as assistant conductor and in-house composer and the graduate’s career was launched.
The German Romantic Era style of symphonic music was slowing down. Young musicians were looking for more than “the symphonic mode” of musical expression. They craved an emphasis on the poetic and the dramatic now exemplified by tone poem composer Liszt, and new opera king Wagner. They embraced a brazen use of dissonance, over-lapping orchestral “colorings,” the use of specialized equipment (weather and wind machines for sound effects), and large orchestras.
Strauss‘s music went “over the top” from 1889 through the beginning of the 20th century as he combined a career of composing with conducting around Europe. His realistic and startling symphonic tone poems and operas set Europe ablaze. But after 1910, his compositional uniqueness faded into “rehashed” styles, as a younger generation turned to abstract expressionism, neo-classicism, impressionism, and atonal music.
One sub-plot to Strauss’s life was as hero to the Nazi regime. While he said things that would have normally led to a concentration camp, Strauss was able to re-establish friendly relations with Hitler and his team. The apolitical musician wanted only to be left alone with his music and to gather opportunities to “feather his nest.”
Strauss died in Switzerland in 1949 at the age of 84, after having created one last lushly Romantic style work a year before.
FOUR LAST SONGS
At the age of 83 the leisurely Strauss became inspired by lyric poems by Josef von Eichendorff and Hermann Hessem. This interest resulted in a set of songs known as Four Last Songs. Into these songs Strauss poured the most fundamental aspects of his musical style — a rainbow of orchestral color, radiant lyricism, and a life-long love affair with the soprano voice. Death, parting, and loss were the themes. As he lay fatally ill from a series of heart attacks, he exclaimed, "Dying is as I had composed it."
Some key points in the four songs are:
Spring: " I dream long of your trees and blue skies, fragrance, birdsong, all your finery drenched in light like a miracle before me."
September: "A mourning garden, cool rain, shudders from an ending summer, golden leaves fall, dying dream of a garden with closing, weary eyes."
Going to Sleep: "I am weary with ardent desire to receive the stars, Hands – stop all your work, Brow — forget thinking, All senses yearn to sink into slumber, My unfettered soul wants to soar up freely to live deeply."
Sunset: "We have gone through sorrow and joy, Now we rest, air is growing darker, skylarks soar upwards into fragrant air, Soon it will be time for sleep, Tranquil peace, how weary we are of wandering. Is this death?"
PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
1840 – 1893
Sleeping Beauty, op. 66 — 1890
Charles Perrault's tale of the Sleeping Beauty was adapted into a ballet in 1890 and Tchaikovsky did not hesitate to undertake the commission and follow instructions from the choreographer, e.g., the number of measures for this and that dance, leitmotifs for two main characters, and suggested compositional styles for various scenes and dances. But it remained for Tchaikovsky to put to use his uncanny feeling for dance rhythms, melodic line, orchestral wizardry, and compositional organization.
Tchaikovsky had nothing to do with organizing concert suites of this ballet. The orchestra conductor usually arranges suites of this glorious music. The ballet's length of four hours forces the selection of excerpts which, in tonight's case, puts musical mood ahead of following chronological sequences of the plot.
Prologue: After a grand march entrance, the King and Queen accept honored guests into the ceremonial hall to celebrate the baptism of newborn Princess Aurora. An entourage of fairy godmothers arrives to present respective gifts of honesty, grace, prosperity, song, and generosity. Each fairy godmother dances a solo representing her trademark virtue. Suddenly the celebration is interrupted by the arrival of the wicked fairy, twin of the good Lilac Fairy. She announces her gift to the Princess — and that is to be death on her 16th birthday as a result of a pricked finger. Lilac fairy, last to present her gift, changes the curse to a 100-year sleep to be ended by the kiss of her true love.
The Spell: A group of village girls dance a waltz with flower garlands held high. Rose Adagiofollows in which the princess dances alone, moving from one prince to another, accepting a rose from each of four suitors.
The Wedding: This begins with the Pollaca, a procession of fairy-tale characters who are guests at the wedding festivities. Celebratory divertissements by dancers are also performed for the royal couple. Following these entertainments is the Grand Pas de Deux danced by Princess Aurora and Prince Desire/Florimund. Wedding guests join the bride and groom in a spirited mazurka, and the Lilac Fairy, bestows her blessing on the happy couple.