The Peninsula Music Festival - 59th Season 2011 - Program Notes
Program 5 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - Liszt - Berlioz Fest II
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Composed in 1844-1854.
Premiered on February 23, 1854 in Weimar, conducted by the composer.
The only previous performace at PMF was in 1996 with Victor Yampolsky conducting.
Les Préludes, the most popular of Liszt’s thirteen symphonic poems, had its beginning in 1844, when the composer met the French poet Joseph Autran in Marseilles at a banquet in Liszt’s honor. Within days, Liszt set one of Autran’s poems, Les Aquilons (“The Winds”), for mixed chorus and piano; this work was performed by a local chorus almost before the ink had dried. Liszt set three further of Autran’s poems — Les Flots (“The Oceans”), Les Astres (“The Stars”) and La Terre (“The Earth”) while on tour in Spain the following year. In 1848, Liszt, having made a study of orchestration during the intervening years, tried his new-found skill in an overture called The Four Elements to preface the quartet of vocal compositions set to Autran’s verses. Three years later (by which time the overture had been rechristened Symphonic Meditations), Autran sent Liszt his Poèmes de la Mer. Reading these verses recalled to Liszt his earlier pieces inspired by the poet and, referring to the overture and four choruses, he replied, “We will do something with it one fine day.” Between 1852 and 1854, Liszt, indeed, did something with it — he completely recomposed the overture as a symphonic poem, and presented it in 1854 under the title Les Préludes.
During the revision process, Liszt discovered that a long, meditative poem by the French writer and statesman Alphonse de Lamartine evoked emotions similar to those he envisioned in his music. It was from the title of Lamartine’s poem — Les Préludes from the collection entitled Nouvelles méditations poétiques — that Liszt derived the name for his new work. Though the words have little more in common with the music than a general sharing of contrasting sentiments (love—war), Liszt chose to preface the published score with his prose interpretation of the original poem:
“What else is life but a series of preludes to that unknown hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death? Love is the enchanted dawn of all existence; but what fate is there whose first delights of happiness are not interrupted by some storm, whose fine illusions are not dissipated by some mortal blast, consuming its altar as though by a stroke of lightning? And what cruelly wounded soul, issuing from one of these tempests, does not endeavor to solace its memories in the calm serenity of rural life? Nevertheless, man does not resign himself for long to the enjoyment of that beneficent warmth which he first enjoyed in Nature’s bosom, and when the ‘trumpet sounds the alarm’ he takes up his perilous post, no matter what struggle calls him to its ranks, that he may recover in combat the full consciousness of himself and the entire possession of his powers.”
Liszt was the originator of the “symphonic poem,” a one-movement orchestral composition whose music bears a relationship to a literary work, painting, historical event, legend, topographical feature or some other extra-musical stimulation. The symphonic poem, a genre later enthusiastically adopted by many other composers, is sectional in design, with frequent borrowing from such traditional forms as the sonata and rondo. Les Préludes loosely resembles a sonata form. It opens with a slow introduction which presents the work’s principal theme. Much of the music that follows grows from transformations of this germinal melody. The theme is presented in a bold, vigorous version by trombones to begin the sonata form proper, and is soon joined by a swaying, complementary melody sung by the horns. The “development” section contains sentiments first martial, then loving, and finally pastoral. The “recapitulation” is devoted mostly to the lyrical complementary theme. The brilliant coda, a grand, heroic transformation of the main theme again led by the trombones and tuba, brings Les Préludes to a stirring close.
Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E minor, Op. 88
Max Bruch (1838-1920)
Composed in 1911.
Premiered on March 5, 1912 in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, by clarinetist Max Felix Bruch and violist Willy Hess conducted by the composer.
This is the first PMF performance.
Max Bruch, widely known and respected in his day as a composer, conductor and teacher, received his earliest music instruction from his mother, a noted singer and pianist. He began composing at eleven, and by fourteen had produced a symphony and a string quartet, the latter garnering a prize that allowed him to study with Karl Reinecke and Ferdinand Hiller in Cologne. His opera Die Loreley (1862) and the choral work Frithjof (1864) brought him his first public acclaim. For the next 25 years, Bruch held various posts as a choral and orchestral conductor in Cologne, Coblenz, Sondershausen, Berlin, Liverpool and Breslau; in 1883, he visited the United States to conduct concerts of his own choral compositions. From 1890 to 1910, he taught composition at the Berlin Academy and received numerous awards for his work, including an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. Though Bruch is known mainly for three famous compositions for string soloist and orchestra (the G minor Concerto and the Scottish Fantasy for violin, and the Kol Nidrei for cello), he also composed two other violin concertos, three symphonies, a concerto for two pianos, various chamber pieces, songs, three operas and much choral music.
Bruch composed his Concerto for Clarinet and Viola in 1911, his 73rd year, for his eldest son, Max Felix, a talented clarinetist who had also inspired the lovely Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano (Op. 83) from his father two years earlier. The Concerto was premiered on March 5, 1912 at the strategic German seaport city of Wilhelmshaven “in front of all the admirals and captains of our navy,” according to the composer, who conducted Max Felix and his friend violist Willy Hess in the performance. (The versatile Hess switched to viola after playing Bruch’s popular G minor Violin Concerto on the first half of the program.) The Concerto was revised for its publication the following year, and first heard in its definitive form in Berlin on December 3, 1913. Bruch’s confidence in his son as a performer seems to have been well founded. When Max Felix played in Cologne, Fritz Steinbach reported favorably on the event to the composer, comparing his ability with that of Richard Mühlfeld, the clarinetist who had inspired two sonatas, a quintet and a trio from Johannes Brahms two decades before. This was indeed sweet praise to Bruch, since Steinbach had been Music Director at Meiningen before moving to Cologne, and knew Mühlfeld’s playing intimately. Like Brahms’ late works for clarinet, both the Eight Pieces and the Concerto for Clarinet and Viola favor rich, mellow instrumental hues in the alto range and an autumnal maturity of expression, deeply felt but purged of excess. Clarinet and viola are here evenly matched, singing together in duet or conversing in dialogue, while the orchestra provides a luxuriant accompanimental cushion.
The Concerto opens not with the usual dramatic fast movement but with a lyrical, somewhat melancholy essay whose principal thematic material was borrowed from two Swedish folksongs that Bruch had also used in his Nordland Suite for Orchestra of 1906: the first, a smoothly flowing melody, is introduced by the clarinet; the other, built from short, arch-shaped phrases, is given in close-harmony duet by the soloists. Clarinet and viola preface the main body of the movement with a declamatory tandem recitative. The second movement (Allegro moderato) is a languid waltz whose central Trio is occupied by a playful duet for the soloists above a pizzicato accompaniment. The finale, a fully realized sonata form, is launched by a vigorous dotted-rhythm orchestral theme that serves as the principal subject of the movement. The soloists provide triplet arabesques as decoration before the music quiets for the presentation of the second theme, a square-phrased clarinet melody of almost folkish simplicity. The soloists’ triplet figurations return as a bridge to the development section, a leisurely discussion of the earlier thematic materials. The recapitulation allows the only overtly virtuosic display of the Concerto before the work ends, rather abruptly, with a closing reference to the second theme. This little-known but richly satisfying Concerto confirms the words of Sir Donald Tovey, who once said, simply, “It is not easy to write as beautifully as Max Bruch.”
Harold in Italy, Symphony in Four Movements with Viola Solo, Op. 16
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Composed in 1833-1834.
Premiered on November 23, 1834 in Paris Conservatoire, conducted by the composer with Chrétien Urhan as soloist.
The only previous PMF performance was in 2005 with Joan DerHovespian, soloist, and Victor Yampolsky conducting.
In 1833, Berlioz married Harriet Smithson, the English actress who had inspired the Symphonie Fantastique three years earlier. Her only dowry was an overloaded account of debts, and the newlywed Berlioz determined to satisfy her creditors and give her a chance for a fresh start on the Parisian stage. To earn the large amount needed, he took the risk of arranging a concert for his benefit at the Paris Conservatoire in December, announcing that the Symphonie Fantastique and the premiere of the King Lear Overture would be on the bill, as well as an appearance by his friend Franz Liszt playing Weber’s Konzertstück. The concert proved to be one of Berlioz’s rare successes with Parisian public and critics.
Another surprise awaited Berlioz that night, as he related in his Memoirs. “To crown my good fortune,” he recounted, “one member of the audience stayed behind in the empty hall, a man with long hair and piercing eyes and a strange, ravaged countenance; a creature haunted by genius, a Titan among giants, whom I had never seen before, the first sight of whom stirred me to the depths. He stopped me in the passage and seized my hand, uttering glowing eulogies that thrilled and moved me to the depths. It was Paganini. That was the beginning of my friendship with the great artist who exerted such a happy influence on my career.”
Berlioz continued the story: “A few weeks after the concert, Paganini came to see me. He told me that he had a Stradivarius viola, a marvellous instrument, which he wanted to play in public; but he lacked the right music. Would I write a piece for it? ‘You are the only one I would trust with such a commission,’ he said. I replied that I was more flattered than I could say, but that to live up to his expectations and write a work that showed off a virtuoso such as he in a suitably brilliant light, one should be able to play the viola, which I could not. ‘No, no, I insist,’ he said; ‘you will manage. I can’t possibly do it — I am too ill to compose.’”
Berlioz set to work immediately on Paganini’s commission. His earliest plan for the composition included a chorus in addition to the orchestra and solo viola, and the subject was to be The Last Moments of Mary Stuart, inspired by a then-popular play running in Paris. The chorus was soon dropped, however, and Berlioz proceeded with what he called simply his “new symphony.” Paganini eagerly examined the first movement as soon as it was finished, but was disappointed by the lack of flamboyance in the solo part. “That’s no good,” he told the composer. “There’s not enough for me to do here. I should be playing all the time.” Berlioz suggested that Paganini consider writing his own concerto, but the virtuoso left without further comment on the music. “Realizing that my scheme would never suit him,” Berlioz continued, “I set to work to carry it out with a different emphasis and without troubling myself any more about how to show off the viola in a brilliant light. My idea was to write a series of orchestral scenes in which the solo viola would be involved, to a greater or lesser extent, like an actual person, retaining the same character throughout. I decided to give it as a setting the poetic impressions recollected from my wanderings in the Abruzzi, and to make it a kind of melancholy dreamer in the style of Byron’s Childe Harold. [A ‘childe’ is a youth of noble birth.] Hence the title of the symphony, Harold in Italy.”
The music’s association with Byron is tenuous. Its program seems to have been tacked on after the music was largely composed rather than having grown from the literary source, so there is little direct connection with the poet or his work. In its subject and its musical material, it is more a retrospective musical view of the three years that Berlioz spent in Italy as winner of the Prix de Rome than a musical translation of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The four scenes comprising Harold in Italy — Harold in the Mountains, Pilgrims’ March, Serenade and Orgy of the Brigands — have no counterparts in Byron, but they do reflect the composer’s experiences in Italy. He seems, for example, to have spent several afternoons with a gang of bandits, and their lusty exploits are reflected by the finale. Some of the thematic material, as well, comes from the Italian years. The theme which represents Harold was originally written for the Rob Roy Overture of 1832, a work that Berlioz tried to destroy but which resurfaced in copy many years after his death. Harold in Italy is far more Berlioz than Byron.
Paganini may have walked out of Berlioz’s apartment that afternoon in 1834, but he hardly walked out of the composer’s life. Though he never played Harold in Italy, the legendary virtuoso remained throughout his life the composer’s friend and supporter. In his Memoirs, Berlioz described the famous incident of the December 16, 1838 concert at which Paganini first heard the work he had inspired: “The concert had just ended ... when Paganini, followed by his son, came up to me at the orchestra door, gesticulating violently. He was already suffering from the disease of the larynx which killed him, and had completely lost his voice. He made a sign to the child, who put his ear close to his father’s mouth. Having listened carefully, he addressed me: ‘My father bids me tell you, sir, that never in all his life has he been so affected by any concert. Your music has overwhelmed him, and it is all he can do not to get down on his knees to thank you.’ At these astonishing words I made a gesture of embarrassment and incredulity; but Paganini, seizing me by the arm, dragged me back onto the platform, where many of the players still lingered. There he knelt and kissed my hand. No need to describe my feelings: the facts speak for themselves.” Two days later, Paganini’s son delivered a letter from his father to Berlioz. It read, “Beethoven being dead, only Berlioz can make him live again; and I who have heard your divine compositions, so worthy of the genius you are, humbly beg you to accept, as a token of my homage, 20,000 francs. Niccolò Paganini.” The generous gift allowed Berlioz the financial security to undertake the third of his symphonies, Romeo and Juliet, which he dedicated to Paganini.
It needs to be noted about the above incident that, though Berlioz was the most entertaining prose writer among the great composers, he was never one to allow fidelity to the truth to stand in the way of a good story. Paganini paying homage on bended knee is hardly characteristic of that master fiddler, nor is the generosity of his gift. It has been suggested that the money came not from Paganini but from Armand Bertin, publisher of the Journal des Débats, for which Berlioz served as music critic. Other dates and sequences of events in the Memoirs have been shown to be in error, but there can be no doubt about the respect and gratitude that Berlioz showed for Paganini, who was directly responsible for two of his greatest works.
In Harold in Italy, Berlioz again employed the cyclical technique of the idée fixe that he had earlier used in the Symphonie Fantastique. A melody representing the chief protagonist of the work (the idée fixe) is heard in each of the movements, musically and programmatically unifying the overall structure. Though the solo viola is often entrusted with this theme and its embellishments, the work is certainly not the virtuoso piece that Paganini envisioned. The demands on the soloist are less for technique than for richness of tone and depth of musicianship. The opening movement (Harold in the Mountains. Scenes of sadness, of happiness and of joy) is cast in two large sections. The extended slow introduction begins with a finely crafted contrapuntal strain for strings which leads to a minor-mode presentation of the idée fixe by the woodwinds in octaves. The mood brightens, and soon the solo viola enters to sing this main theme in a tender setting. The main section of the movement, a sonata form in fast tempo, is filled with joyful exuberance engendered by some of the most inventive rhythmic and orchestral writing in the concert literature.
The second movement (March of the Pilgrims singing their Evening Prayer) suggests the steady tread to some holy shrine through its incessant pizzicato bass line supporting a simple song in the violins. The movement is built in the form of an arch, beginning softly and reaching its loudest point at the center before subsiding to a quiet close, rather as though the pilgrims were passing by in solemn procession. The following Serenade of a Mountaineer of the Abruzzi to his Mistress includes a vivacious piping melody and a pastoral theme, which are first presented independently and then together in the movement’s closing section.
To the poet Heinrich Heine, Berlioz described the finale (Orgy of the Brigands, Memories of Past Scenes) as “a hurricane.” The movement is prefaced by short recollections of the principal themes of the earlier movements separated by premonitory bursts of the music of the finale. After these preparatory stanzas, the colorful main body of the movement begins. Berlioz characterized this music as “that furious orgy where wine, blood, joy, rage, all combined, parade their intoxication; where all laugh, drink, fight, destroy, slay, violate and utterly run riot; in this brigand scene the orchestra becomes a regular pandemonium ... whilst from the solo viola, the dreamy Harold, some trembling notes of his evening hymn are still heard in the distance as he flees in terror.”
©2011 Dr. Richard E. Rodda