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The following program notes are copyright Susan Halpern, 2014.
The following note is copyright Susan Halpern, 2014.
Overture to the Opera, Fidelio, Op. 72 . . . Ludwig van Beethoven
(Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn; died March 26, 1828, in Vienna)
Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, was originally entitled Leonore, after a melodrama
based on an actual event in the French Revolution. For political reasons, the setting was
moved to Spain and the action set in a prison near Seville. In the plot the Governor has
incarcerated Florestan, a nobleman, and threatened to reveal his crimes to the King's
Minister. Leonore, Florestan’s wife, determined to free him, disguises herself as a young
man, takes the name Fidelio, and becomes assistant to the jailer. When the villainous
Governor decides to kill Florestan and orders a grave dug, Leonore reveals her identity
and holds him at gunpoint until the trumpets announce the arrival of the Minister, who
frees all the political prisoners and sends the Governor to a dungeon cell.
The opera failed at its first performance, in 1805, and again when revised for a new
production in 1806. The third version was not performed until 1814. Beethoven wrote
four different overtures for the opera. This one, called Overture to Fidelio, was written
for the 1814 production and is now usually played as the introduction to the opera. It is a
short, dramatic composition that uses none of the opera's thematic material but calls the
audience to attention and holds it ready for the events to be represented on stage.
Beethoven did not finish this overture in time for the opening performance on May 23,
1814, so his Overture to The Ruins of Athens was played instead. The Overture to
Fidelio was performed for the first time on May 26.
It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two
trumpets, two trombones, timpani and strings.
Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. . . George Gershwin
(Born September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York; died July 11, 1937, in Beverly Hills,
California)
In his early twenties, George Gershwin became one of the most successful popular songwriters of his time. The composer was widely admired for the beauty and originality of
his melodic inventions and for the vigor and ingenuity of his rhythms. Rhapsody in Blue
was the first composition to test Gershwin’s ambition to write in large form. It was first
performed at an historic event of 1924: a concert presented by the popular band-leader
Paul Whiteman with what he called his "jazz orchestra" in a New York concert hall in a
program entitled "Experiment in Modern Music."
Among the many important "classical" musicians at the concert was Walter Damrosch,
the conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. Damrosch was so pleased with
what he heard that in April 1925, he commissioned Gershwin to write a large-scale work
for piano and full symphony orchestra. The Concerto in F was the result. Although
Gershwin had already written many musical comedies, he had had little experience with
formal composition. It was said he went out to buy Forsyth’s Standard Manual of
Orchestration to aid in the composition of the newly commissioned work because at that
time, Broadway composers were discouraged from orchestrating their own work, and
thus he had not had any experience with orchestration. Gershwin worked at the
composition from July to September. On November 20, he finished orchestrating the
work, and on December 3, in Carnegie Hall, with Damrosch and the New York
Symphony Orchestra, Gershwin gave the concerto its first performance.
Damrosch asserted, “Composers have been walking around jazz like a cat around a plate
of hot soup, waiting for it to cool off so that they could enjoy it without burning their
tongues,” but Gershwin had approached jazz boldly. “Lady Jazz has danced her way
around the world, but she has encountered no knight who could lift her to a level that
would enable her to be received as a respectable member of musical circles. Gershwin
seems to have accomplished this miracle by dressing the independent and up-to-date
young lady in the classic garb of a concerto, yet he has not detracted from her fascinating
personality. He is the prince who has taken Cinderella by the hand and openly
proclaimed her a princess to the astonished world, no doubt to the fury of her envious
suitors.”
Gershwin himself wrote, in a contribution to a book called Revolt in the Arts, “It is
difficult to determine what enduring values jazz has contributed because ‘jazz’ is a word
which has been used for at least five or six different types of music. It is an original
American achievement which will endure [and] leave its mark on future music.” Full of
athletic dynamism, this unique work sports optimism throughout.
Gershwin originally decided to call his work the New York Concerto, but eventually
settled instead on the less evocative Concerto in F. The Allegro opening movement of
the concerto has a classical sonata-like form that has been freely modified and adapted to
the composer’s popular melodic style, emphasizing one of the liveliest dance rhythms of
the day, the Charleston. Gershwin labeled it: “in sonata form—but,” and four days
before the premiere, he published a description in the New York Tribune, saying, “The
first movement employs the Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing
the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life. It begins with a rhythmic motif given out
by the kettledrums, supported by other percussion instruments and with a Charleston
motif introduced by bassoon, horns, clarinets and violas. The principal theme is
announced by a bassoon.”
The middle movement embraces the blues with a lyrical and sustained nocturne. The
Andante con moto, a three-part song in blues style, features a muted solo trumpet along
with the piano and a banjo-style accompaniment from the strings. Gershwin said: “The
second movement has a poetic nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as
the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated.” The
vigorously rhythmic finale, Allegro agitato, is related to the classic rondo-finale, and in
its brilliant course the finale recalls themes from the first two movements. Gershwin
declared, “The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms,
starting violently and keeping the same pace throughout.” The concerto ends much like it
begins, with big timpani strokes.
Gershwin scored the concerto for piccolo and two flutes, two oboes and English horn,
two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones
and tuba, timpani, percussion and strings. Concerto in F is dedicated to Damrosch.
Symphony No. 8, in G Major, Op. 88 . . .Antonin Dvořák
(Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves; died May 11, 1904, in Prague)
Dvořák, the son of a village innkeeper and butcher, began studying music when he took
violin lessons from a local schoolteacher in his small village, and when he reached the
age of sixteen, he left home to study in Prague. Five years later, he joined the orchestra
of the National Theater, playing the viola (an instrument that in his time was designated
the instrument of failed violinists). Soon thereafter he began to test his creative powers
with extended compositions in the classical forms. He was almost completely unknown
until 1875, when his talent came to the attention of Johannes Brahms, who helped him
launch his career by securing him a generous grant from the Austrian Imperial
government in Vienna as well as recommending him to Brahms’ own music publisher in
Berlin.
Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 8 in 1889, an unusually productive year during which,
he confided to a friend, he felt so overwhelmed with musical ideas that he did not have
time to put them all down on paper. He composed this symphony swiftly in his country
home at Vysoká, beginning it in September and completing it by November 8th. Dvořák
conducted the first performance with the Prague National Theatre Orchestra on February
2, 1890.
Symphony No. 8 gained international recognition more rapidly than any of Dvořák other
symphonies. After its well-received Prague premiere, Dvořák took the new work to
England, where it was performed in April 1890. Only a few months later, his friend Hans
Richter conducted a performance in Vienna. Writing to Dvořák after this concert,
Richter expressed his admiration: “You would certainly have been pleased with this
performance. All of us felt that it is a magnificent work, and we were all
enthusiastic. Brahms dined with us after the concert and we drank to the health of the
absent father of [Symphony No.8.] Vivat sequens!” On March 11, 1892, the New York
Philharmonic Society premiered it in the United States at a concert in the Metropolitan
Opera House. The following year, Dvořák conducted a performance of it at the
Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
This symphony was originally published as Symphony No. 4, although it was actually
Dvořák eighth work in symphonic form, and thus it is now known as Symphony No. 8. It
is sometimes also known as his “English” Symphony, because a London firm issued it
during a period when Dvořák was having a disagreement with his usual publisher,
Simrock. In 1876, Brahms had introduced Dvořák to Simrock, in Berlin; it was at
Simrock’s request that Dvořák wrote his popular Slavonic Dances. During their years of
collaboration, Simrock and Dvořák were frequently in disagreement about one basic
issue. The publisher wanted Dvořák to write more short works in the popular style of the
Slavonic Dances, but Dvořák preferred to spend his time on the publication of the
symphonies and serious chamber music.
Historians have always remarked on Symphony No. 8’s carefree and spontaneous nature,
asserting that its idyllic, bucolic and folk-like character reflects its roots in the music of
the Bohemian countryside. Here Dvořák allows his Bohemian personality to assert itself
in his own individual rhythmic and melodic style. Dvořák biographer, Hoffmeister,
speaks of Dvořák thoughts “breaking into flower, not like little blossoms lodged in the
stony crevices of an architectural structure, but as the Czech meadows flower, in
luxuriant garlands of varied charm and color.” At this point, Dvořák was putting
Brahms’s imposing influence behind him and finding his own personal and natural means
of expression. Dvořák wrote that he aimed in this work to compose a symphony “. . .
different than the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new
way.” Here and in the New World Symphony (Symphony No.9), Dvořák took a novel
approach to form and thematic development.
The first movement, Allegro con brio, begins seriously and pensively, but the principal
theme soon dispels that solemn mood with a kind of birdsong for the flute. The
movement contains many memorable melodies that have the character of Czech folk
songs, cheerful and robust. Some are reminiscent of the Slavonic Dances. Dvořák does
not give the themes the development usually found in the first movement of symphonies:
he hesitates to develop any of this string of melodies, simply letting their profusion and
their contrasting character carry the movement forward instead. Brahms once said, when
responding to a critic of Dvořák music, “I would be happy if one of his passing thoughts
occurred to me as a main idea.”
The second movement, Adagio, begins with a short opening motif that serves as the
foundation for variations, as somber mood alternates with serenity. Here again, Dvořák
music contains straightforward folk-like melodies written in an alternating ABAB
structure. The movement begins seriously with the clarinets articulating minor themes.
Then the oboe, flute, and after that, the solo violin outline melodic figures above a gentle
dance-like accompaniment. Dvořák uses a waltz-like Allegretto grazioso, instead of a
scherzo for the third movement, including a contrasting central section that is almost
Schubertian in character. Some critics have labeled the main theme the most haunting
melody Dvořák ever composed; its roots have been traced to the folk music of Dvořák
native Bohemia. The trio’s melody, which is like a folk dance, Dvořák took from his
own (now never performed) comic opera, The Stubborn Lovers. The movement ends
with a lively coda, Molto vivace, in the style of one of the composer’s Slavonic Dances.
A trumpet fanfare begins the finale, Allegro ma non troppo, with a stately processional
announcement that becomes developed in the form of theme and variations. The cellos
proclaim the theme, a short and simple melody that Dvořák worked very hard to perfect,
revising it many times before he felt content with it. What follows after is diverse and
inventive: the variations go from a gutsy and rough Bohemian folk dance to a ruminating,
quiet and philosophical woodwind and string statement. The end of the movement
introduces another Bohemian dance-like figure resembling the furiant, a popular Slavonic
dance. There are also echoes of the main subject of the opening movement, bringing the
symphony to a crashing conclusion.
Dvořák scored this symphony for piccolo and two flutes, two oboes and English horn,
two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone,
tuba, kettledrums and strings. He dedicated it: “To the Bohemian Academy of Emperor
Franz Joseph for the Encouragement of Art and Literature.”