The Peninsula Music Festival - 59th Season 2011 - Program Notes
Program 1 - Tuesday, August 2, 2011 - Festival Opening
Overture to Nabucco
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Composed in 1841.
Premiered on March 9, 1842 in Milan.
This is the first performance of the Nabucco Overture at the Peninsula Music Festival.
Nabucco was Verdi’s first great success and the foundation of his international reputation. Though he once wrote that “with this opera, my artistic career may be said to have begun,” Nabucco was actually a rebirth rather than an absolute beginning, a triumph over the most painful experiences he ever knew. Verdi’s first opera, Oberto of 1839, enjoyed enough success that the director of Milan’s La Scala, Bartolomeo Merelli, contracted with him for three more works to be completed at intervals of eight months. Un Giorno de Regno, the first piece produced under the agreement, was, however, a dismal failure, the bitterest one that Verdi was ever to know on the stage. His disappointment only exacerbated the residual grief over the deaths of his two children and his wife during the two years preceding Un Giorno. He almost gave up composing all together, but Merelli convinced him to fulfill their contract, and then provided the anxious composer with a libretto by Temistocle Solera based on the Biblical account of Nebuchadnezzar. Verdi liked the dramatic sweep of the plot’s action and its Biblical paraphrases, and it was from Solera’s text that he found a renewed will to live and work. Nabucco was Verdi’s earliest masterpiece.
The main thrust of the plot of Nabucco concerns the faithfulness of the Hebrews to God during their Babylonian Captivity. The great chorus of the Hebrews, Va, Pensiero (“Fly, Thoughts”), in which they express longing for their lost freedom and their distant homeland, struck a sympathetic chord in its Italian listeners, and became the opera’s instant hit and one of Verdi’s most enduring contributions to his country’s culture. At the time of the premiere (March 9, 1842 at La Scala) much of northern Italy was still ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs under terms dictated by the Congress of Vienna more than 25 years before. Most Italians desperately wanted to be free of Austrian domination, and supported the revolutionary movement known as the Risorgimento (the “resurgence” of national pride that the descendents of ancient Rome regarded as their long-denied birthright). Va, Pensiero, the passionate hymn of freedom, became the movement’s anthem and Verdi its hero. During the insurrections of 1848, the name VERDI, scrawled across walls and carried on signs, was used as a rallying cry by the nationalists. In addition to being a tribute to their beloved composer, the letters of his name were also an acrostic for “Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia,” the Duke of Savoy whom the patriots were fighting to bring to power as “King of Italy.” When Cavour called the first parliamentary session of the newly united Italy in 1859, Verdi was elected as the representative from Busseto. Though reluctant to enter the political arena, he was sufficiently patriotic and cognizant of his standing with his countrymen to accept the mandate. So great and enduring was the fame of Va, Pensiero that it was sung by the crowds lining the streets of Verdi’s funeral procession almost six decades after it was composed.
The Overture to Nabucco is a potpourri of three themes from the opera. The opening chorale for trombones and tuba reflects the sturdy faith of the Hebrews and the belief in their eventual release from bondage. The second motive is a tempestuous melody depicting the curses of the Israelites upon the story’s temporarily-traitor-for-love, Ismael. The third theme is the flowing triple-meter hymn, Va, Pensiero. The extended closing section is based on the curse theme, and accumulates great energy as the music rushes towards its vibrant closing pages.
Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano and Orchestra in C major, Op. 56
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Composed in 1803-1804.
Premiered in 1805 or 1806 in Vienna, with violinist Carl August Seidler, cellist Anton Kraft and pianist the Archduke Rudolph as soloists.
First performed at the PMF in 1957 with the Beaux Arts Trio and Thor Johnson conducting. The most recent performance was in 1994 with Frank Almond, Wendy Warner, Miriam Yampolsky and Victor Yampolsky conducting.
“Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel,” counseled the 19th-century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli. He would have gotten no argument from Beethoven on that point. When Rudolph, Archduke of Austria and titled scion of the Habsburg line, turned up among Beethoven’s Viennese pupils, the young composer realized that he had tapped the highest echelon of European society. Beethoven gave instruction in both piano performance and composition to Rudolph, who had a genuine if limited talent for music. Questioned once whether Rudolph played really well, the diplomatic teacher answered with a hoarse chuckle, “When he is feeling just right.” Concerning flattery, the most important manner in which 19th-century composers could praise royalty was by dedicating one of their compositions to a noble personage. Rudolph, who eventually became Archbishop Cardinal of Austria and remained a life-long friend and patron of Beethoven, received the dedication of such important works as the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the “Lebewohl” and “Hammerklavier” Sonatas, the Op. 96 Violin Sonata, the “Archduke” Trio, the Missa Solemnis and the Grosse Fuge. While Rudolph was still a boy of sixteen, however, his teacher wrote for him his very own composition, a piece that made a grand noise and showed off his piano skills in a most sympathetic setting.
Beethoven’s choice of piano, violin and cello for Rudolph’s concerto appears to be unprecedented in the literature — “really something new,” he wrote to his publisher. There was a popular genre in the Classical era known as the sinfonia concertante for two or more soloists with orchestral accompaniment, a revamped model of the Baroque concerto grosso. Mozart and Haydn left lovely examples. The sinfonia concertante was especially favored in France, where the combination of violin and either viola or cello was most common. Beethoven, powerfully under the influence of French music at the time (the “Eroica” Symphony and Fidelio also date from 1803-1804), took over the form for two solo strings and added to it a piano part and — behold! the adolescent Archduke had become a star. Beethoven liked his student, who seems to have been quite a nice young man. The composer tailored the piano part to Rudolph’s skills so that it did not present extremely difficult technical demands but still showed off his abilities to good advantage. The string parts, on the other hand, he filled with florid lines woven around the keyboard writing so that the soloists as a group come off as a dazzling band of virtuosos. To assure a good first performance, Beethoven called in two of the best players of the day to share the stage with Rudolph — violinist Carl August Seidler and cellist Anton Kraft. If the demands of the cello part on the range and technique of the soloist are any indication, Kraft, especially, seems to have warranted his reputation as a master performer.
Beethoven set himself a thorny compositional problem with his Triple Concerto: how to give each soloist sufficient exposure while keeping the work within manageable formal bounds. Absolute equality would demand that every theme be played four times — once by the orchestra and once by each of the three soloists. To solve the problem, he had to devise simple and compact themes comprising basic chord and scale patterns, so this Concerto is not rich in the cantabile melodies he was able to employ elsewhere in his middle-period compositions. The interest is to be found elsewhere — in the work’s contrasting sonorities, its interplay between soloists and orchestra and its formal cohesion. While it does not scale great emotional heights, the “Triple” Concerto shows with what mastery Beethoven could command the purely technical aspects of his craft, and is a perfect exemplar of Friedrich Nietzsche’s summation of his art: “Beethoven’s music is music about music.”
The Concerto’s first movement is a modified sonata design with a lengthy exposition and recapitulation necessitated by the many thematic repetitions. After a hushed and halting opening in the strings, the full orchestra takes up the main thematic material of the movement. The soloists enter, led, as usual throughout this Concerto, by the cello with the main theme. The second theme begins, again in the cello, with a snappy triad played in the unexpected key of A major rather than the more usual dominant tonality of G. It is through such original and, for 1804, daring technical excursions that Beethoven widened the expressive possibilities of instrumental music. Much of the remainder of the movement is given over to repetitions and figuration rather than to true motivic development. A sudden quickening of the tempo charges the concluding measures with flashing energy.
The second movement is a peaceful song for the solo strings with elaborate embroidery from the piano. The movement is not long, and soon leads into the finale without a break. The closing movement is a strutting Rondo alla Polacca in the style of the Polish polonaise, which Chopin was to immortalize in his keyboard works. The cello again is the first to seize the dance-like theme, sharing it with the other participants in turn. There is an almost constant buzz of rhythmic filigree that gives this movement a happy propulsion which eventually erupts into a truly fine frenzy when the meter changes from triple to duple near the end. The triple meter and the rondo tune return to bring the Concerto to a rousing conclusion.
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, “Scottish”
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Composed in 1841-1842.
Premiered on March 3, 1842 in Leipzig, conducted by the composer.
First performed at the PMF in 1959 with Thor Johnson conducting. Most recently performed in 1994 with Victor Yampolsky conducting.
At age twenty, Felix Mendelssohn was a wonder. He was one of Europe’s best composers, an excellent pianist, a path-breaking conductor and a visual artist of nearly professional capability, as well as a man of immense charm and personality. It is not surprising that his first appearances in London in the spring and summer of 1829 were a smashing success. He even seemed blessed by a slight speech impediment that allowed him to negotiate the “th” sound of English that plagued most German visitors. Both to relax from his hectic London schedule and to temporarily sate his obsession with travel, he reserved time in late summer, following his appearances, to tour the British countryside. He and his traveling companion, Karl Klingemann, the secretary of the Hanover Legation in London, settled on a walking tour through the Scottish Highlands; they arrived in Edinburgh on July 28th.
In a letter recounting the experiences of his first day in the Scottish capital, Mendelssohn wrote, “Everything here looks so stern and robust, half enveloped in a haze of smoke or fog. Many Highlanders came in costume from church victoriously leading their sweethearts in their Sunday attire and casting magnificent and important looks over the world; with long, red beards, tartan plaids, bonnets and feathers and naked knees and their bagpipes in their hands, they passed along by the half-ruined gray castle on the meadow where Mary Stuart lived in splendor.” Two days later, he reported on his visit to Mary’s castle, Holyrood: “In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Mary lived and loved. A little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door. This is the staircase the murderers ascended, and, finding Rizzio [Mary’s Italian advisor and, probably, lover, whom the Scots mistrusted] ... drew him out; about three chambers away is a small corner where they killed him. The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at the broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of England. Everything around is broken and moldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish symphony.” Then follow ten measures of music that were to become the introductory melody of the Third Symphony. Mendelssohn’s Scottish adventure continued for most of August. He and Klingemann traveled on foot, stopping at whatever vista caught their fancy so that Felix could make a quick pencil sketch of the scene. Mendelssohn was most impressed by one particularly stormy prospect on the gnarled Isle of Staffa off the western coast of Scotland, an experience that gave rise to the superb Hebrides Overture. The travelers completed their strenuous journey and returned to London.
Mendelssohn occupied himself immediately with the Hebrides Overture and completed it the following year. The Symphony, however, did not come so easily. Some preliminary sketches for it were done in 1830-1831 while Mendelssohn was touring Italy, but he admitted that he found it impossible to evoke the “misty mood” of Scotland while in sun-splashed Rome, and put the work aside; it was not finished until January 1842 in Berlin. He conducted the premiere on March 3rd with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and included the new Symphony in his London concerts for that summer. Its success only added to the great acclaim already accorded Mendelssohn by the English, a phenomenon that was royally recognized when Queen Victoria granted the composer permission to dedicate the work to her.
Though Mendelssohn always referred to this work as his “Scottish” Symphony, the score was originally published as simply “Symphony No. 3,” without any subtitle. (This was the last symphony he composed, but it was published third, before the No. 4, “Italian” and the No. 5, “Reformation.”) Many commentators have found all manner of Scottish songs, ceremonies and sights embodied in the music. Mendelssohn, for his part, refused to apply any specific program to the work, and he even wrote censoriously of the indigenous music he heard in Scotland. “No national music for me!” he proclaimed. “Infamous, vulgar, out-of-tune trash.... It is distracting and has given me a toothache already. Scottish bagpipes, Swiss cow-horns, Welsh harps, all playing the Huntsmen’s Chorus with hideously improvised variations — then their ‘beautiful’ singing in the hall — altogether their music is beyond conception.” It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there is little folk-like melody in this work. Mendelssohn later clarified his true inspiration for the “Scottish” Symphony: “It is in pictures, ruins and natural surroundings that I find the most music.” Rather than a tonal travelogue, this is a work of deep sensibility and manly melancholy that grew from the emotions that the stern Scottish landscape and history engendered in the young Mendelssohn; it is music “more of feeling than of painting,” as Beethoven said of his own “Pastoral” Symphony.
The four movements of the “Scottish” Symphony, Mendelssohn’s greatest work in the genre, are directed to be played without pause. The long, brooding introduction opens with a grave harmonization of the melody that Mendelssohn conceived at Holyrood. The sonata form proper begins with a flowing theme, graceful yet filled with vigor. Other melodic inspirations follow. A stormy, thoroughly worked-out development utilizes most of the exposition’s thematic material. After the recapitulation, a coda with the force of a second development section is concluded by a return of the brooding theme of the introduction. The second movement is the only one that consistently shows sunlight and high spirits. It is built around two melodies: one, skipping and animated, is introduced by the clarinet; the other, brisk and martial, is presented in the strings.
The wonderful third movement is unsurpassed in Mendelssohn’s orchestral oeuvre. In melody, structure, orchestration and mood it belongs among the masterworks of the Romantic era. Cast in sonata form, its first theme is a lyrical melody of noble gait that is perfectly balanced by the elegiac second theme, characterized by its heroic, dotted rhythms. The finale is a vivacious and well-developed dance in an atmospheric minor key. The Symphony concludes with a majestic coda in a broad, swinging meter.
©2011 Dr. Richard E. Rodda