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.
PETER (Pyotr) ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
1840 – 1893
Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb minor – 1875
Son of a prosperous government official in a Russian province, Tchaikovsky was steered by his family to a legal career in government. As a child he had picked up a smattering of musical knowledge but was never thought to possess any special musical talent; no trace of musicianship existed in his family. By age 23 the government clerk was obsessed by a powerful interest in creating music. He entered the Conservatory of St. Petersburg in 1866 and was immediately recommended for a job teaching harmony at the Conservatory of Moscow. With the financial support of a wealthy patron in 1877, the budding composer resigned his teaching post to devote himself exclusively to the western-style music encouraged by his Conservatory training. Having been educated in traditional European forms it was musically comfortable for him to compose in the styles of Italian opera, French Ballet, and German music. He thus became a musical loner who refused to join a strong movement promoting Russian nationalism.
Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by personal crises and periods of depression. A contributory factor was suppressed homosexuality and the disastrous consequences for a musical career if this were revealed. He mourned throughout his life for his mother who had died during his early teens, and he suffered from chronic depression and physical ailments. A quote from his adult letters sums up his life: "I have very low moments but an insatiable thirst for work consoles me. Without work life has no meaning." Yet the composer's fame grew; he was honored by Tsar Nicholas, awarded a lifetime pension, and lauded in concert halls everywhere. After a trip to America to commemorate the opening of Carnegie Hall, the successful composer plunged into work on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Within a year of its production, 53-year-old Tchaikovsky died from cholera or suicide; the actual cause of his death was never determined.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb minor, op. 23
Tchaikovsky claimed that this concerto was not written, as per tradition, to follow the standard duet style between solo and orchestra; rather its intention was to emphasize a competition between the solo piano and orchestra. The concerto begins with a prologue (or introduction) that sounds like an appropriate way to start. The opening measures display the grand scope of the musical contest. The challenge comes from a pronouncement by four horns answered by crashing piano chords on the offbeat. Strings that introduce a strong melody line against rising piano chords follow this. The strings produce a melody that is one of Tchaikovsky's best loved and has been given wide circulation in a Hollywood movie, a Hit Parade song (Tonight We Love), and ultimately by Van Cliburn's first place medal in the 1957 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. This particular melody then leaves the score for good, never to be heard again.
First Movement: The first theme of the concerto is a gay, skipping melody that the composer claims to have heard from a blind Ukrainian street beggar; it is tossed around at length before a second theme enters the scene. The second theme is a sweet-sounding contrast to the first theme. Part three of the first movement brings a breath-taking cadenza by the solo pianist. It is this crashing cadenza that ratifies the piano soloist's position as the " hero of the hour." It is one of the cadenzas throughout the work which answers orchestral "comments" in a dueling fashion.
Second Movement: This opens quietly and melodically with plucked strings supporting a lone flute in a poignant theme that is repeated by the piano. A new theme by oboe becomes a rapid scherzo based on a French song, " il faux s'amuser, danser et rire" (dance and laugh are necessary). After this second theme is worked over with recurring ideas, the first part of the movement is repeated in varied, abbreviated form.
Third Movement: This begins with a rondo of dancing forms with brilliant rhythmic syncopations from a Ukrainian folk tune. This is followed by a new lyrical theme that sweeps in above the piano line, and the piano responds in kind. Combinations and developments of the movement's themes provide the bulk of the movement; the music builds to a huge climax and the concerto's finale is a free-for-all blasting of musical fireworks.
1906 – 1975
Symphony No. 9 in E Flat Major – 1945
Dmitri Shostakovich's parents were musicians; his father was an amateur pianist and singer and his mother was a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory. The first sign that Dmitri was musically gifted came when he was 5 years old. After attending his first concert, one that included works by nationalist composer Rimsky-Korsakov, the young boy returned home singing the melodies he had just heard once. Because the boy's mother did not believe in music instruction for young children, Dmitri's first lessons were delayed until age 9. Rapid progress brought about first compositions, and in 1919 he entered the Leningrad Conservatory. The young student's gifts proved so phenomenal that he was considered "another Mozart." Not only did he have musical gifts, but also the patriotic desire to do what was expected of artists in the post-Revolution era; this was to glorify the ideals of communism in the Soviet Union, not difficult for one who had been only 10 when the 1917 revolution succeeded.
Shostakovich rose quickly to the top of musical recognition in both the Soviet Union and the world beyond its borders. However, as he matured, the composer began to notice that all was not well with the Proletariat under Stalin's repressive dictatorship. To vocalize negative criticism was to flirt with banishment or possibly death. The only way to express criticism was through musical satire and humor — by using notes to create musical tricks — "fooling around," similar to the clown who slips on the banana peel. In "playing around," the composer was often accused of "bourgeoisie decadence" and periodic blankets of censorship occurred. His public apologies for "straying away from the desires and expectations of the Soviet people" seemed sincere enough and all was forgiven until the next round of frenzied music came forth. The composer's life was often one filled with yo-yo receptions. But, even with the state of musical uncertainty, the Russian composer was ultimately given the most important award of all, "Hero of the Soviet Union." He had ten remaining years in his life to enjoy the prestigious honor of being an important hero in his native land.
Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major - 1945
Symphony No. 9 is renowned for its moods of humor, parody, and satire. It had the effect of a "stun gun," in direct defiance of the composer's public promise to provide the last of three symphonies honoring the Soviet Union's patriotic and victorious participation in World War II. Paraphrasing Shostakovich: "What was expected was deification of our leader through the inclusion of choruses, soloists, and quadruple winds in a grand production. In its place I chose to write a shorter, different kind of symphony. Critics will delight in blasting it but musicians will like it; it is simply music to entertain."
The music of Symphony #9 may be difficult to fathom upon first hearing. It is fraught with sudden starts and stops, "out of tune" notes, skipped beats, unexpected blasts and responses, awkward accents and trilling, and other twists and turns.
Stalin was incensed with thoughts of having been ignored, even by a dedication. The symphony was built on abstract ideas and music that Stalin personally disliked. However, the dictator's plate was full of international diplomatic relationships that needed manipulation, so he could ill-afford to criticize the world-famous composer at this time. The expected censorship came later; the symphony was accused of "ideological weakness with failure to reflect the true spirit of the people." Along with banning all performances was destruction of all scores and recordings; the composer remained musically silent until after Stalin's death in 1953.
First Movement: This begins with a sprightly theme by violins in the classical style of Haydn or Mozart, with shades of Prokofiev's neo-classical symphony. A solo trombone blasts unexpectedly with two out-of-place notes; the piccolo responds with a snippy, scornful-sounding little motif. These motives get tossed around until the middle of the movement when the music becomes harried. The over-eager trombone keeps interrupting with its two-note call. (Critics have named these blasts the "Stalin motif," thought to ridicule his overblown ego). Muted trumpets give a strident cry before the trombone seemingly pushes at a solo violin to rejoin the music. The movement comes to an unexpected halt.
Second Movement: This opens with a soulful clarinet solo that is joined in its waltz-based, melancholy meandering by woodwinds. The movement's second theme is a gently rocking melody for strings. The slow, dancing rhythms are marked by sudden stops and starts that suggest hesitation and doubt.
Third, Fourth and Fifth Movements: The last three movements are joined together without a break while offering the usual, quick changes of moods, textures, and tempi. A brilliant trumpet solo briefly cuts through agitated instrumental textures. Piccolo and tambourine are accented in rapid-fire activity before the movement slows down as if in an exhausted state. A huge fanfare by trombones and tuba acts appears to be prelude to something big ahead — only to segue into an introspective bassoon solo. Blasting brass and bassoon are pitted against each other with the bassoon soloing into whimsical flights. The lightness of the first movement returns with woodwind duets that eventually sound ominous in awkward-sounding harmonies. Strings come out of nowhere in a rush of confusing arpeggios matched against brass and woodwinds. Booming bass drum and the rat-a-tat-tat of the snare drum occur before the snap of a tambourine ends the confusing rush of sound.
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.