The Peninsula Music Festival - 59th Season 2011 - Program Notes
Program 8 - Thursday, August 18, 2011 - Liszt-Berioz Fest III
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Premiered on February 16, 1854 in Weimar, conducted by the composer.
The only previous PMF performance was in 1995 with Victor Yampolsky conducting
In 1848, when Liszt had made his fortune and secured his fame as a virtuoso pianist, he decided to give up concertizing altogether, appearing in public during the last four decades of his life only for an occasional benefit concert. From among the variegated patchwork of duchies, kingdoms and city-states that constituted pre-Bismarck Germany, he chose to settle in the small but sophisticated town of Weimar, where Johann Sebastian Bach had held a job early in his career. Once installed at Weimar, Liszt took over the musical establishment at the court there, and elevated it into one of the most important centers of European opera and instrumental music. He stirred up interest in such neglected composers as Schubert, and encouraged such younger ones as Saint-Saëns, Wagner and Grieg by performing their works. He also gave much of his energy to his own original compositions, creating many of the pieces for which he is known today, including the dozen symphonic poems that count among the seminal works of late-19th-century music.
The breadth of Liszt’s musical sympathies is evident in the pieces that he produced at the court opera house in Weimar. In 1850, as one of his first acts as music director, he mounted the premiere of Lohengrin by Richard Wagner (his eventual son-in-law), which he followed in later years with productions of Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman. He also gave the first performances of Peter Cornelius’ The Barber of Baghdad (1858) and Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila (1877), and staged Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Schumann’s Genoveva, Verdi’s Ernani, Rossini’s Le Comte Ory and La Gazza Ladra and L’Italiana in Algeri, Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella, Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, and operas by Hérold, Halévy, Cherubini, Spontini, Donizetti, Bellini and others. Liszt reserved a special place in his wide-ranging repertory for the operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck, whose Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste, Iphigénie en Tauride and Armida he produced during his tenure at Weimar.
For the performance of Gluck’s Orfeo on February 16, 1854 honoring the birthday of the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, wife of the Grand Duke Carl Friedrich of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Liszt prefaced the opera with a symphonic movement of his own creation. This prologue, reworked during the following months, became the basis for his Symphonic Poem No. 4, Orpheus, which he conducted at the Weimar Town Hall on November 10, 1854. (Orpheus was the last in an astonishing series of Liszt orchestral premieres that year which also included Les Préludes [February 23], Mazeppa [April 16], Tasso [April 19] and Festklänge [November 9]). Liszt wrote in a flowery preface to the score of the music’s inspiration and purpose: “I saw in my mind’s eye an Etruscan vase in the Louvre, representing the first poet-musician. I thought to see round about him wild beasts listening in ravishment: man’s brutal instincts quelled to silence.... Humanity today, as formerly and always, preserves in its breast instincts of ferocity, brutality and sensuality, which it is the mission of art to soften, sweeten and ennoble.” Liszt limned his vision of the healing and uplifting power of music, as represented by Orpheus, in a monolithic work of solemn and deep feeling which eschews the strong dramatic contrasts and extroverted flamboyance that mark many of his other compositions. In his study of the composer, Derek Watson wrote that Orpheus is “a restrained, poetic masterpiece, a hymn in praise of the spirit of music. Orpheus achieves nobility and expressive poise through delicacy of scoring, luminous, suspended harmonic effects, and unforced, graceful lyricism of melody.”
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major
Composed 1839-1849; revised in 1853.
Premiered on February 17, 1855 in Weimar, conducted by Hector Berlioz with the composer as soloist.
First performance at PMF was in 1984 with Panayis Lyras, soloist, and Anshel Brusilow conducting. The most recent PMF performance was in 1997 with Leon Bates, soloist, and Stephen Alltop conducting.
“Franz Liszt was one of the most brilliant and provocative figures in music history. As a pianist, conductor, composer, teacher, writer and personality — for with Liszt, being a colorful personality was itself a profession — his immediate influence upon European music can hardly be exaggerated. His life was a veritable pagan wilderness wherein flourished luxuriant legends of love affairs, illegitimate children, encounters with great figures of the period, and hairbreadth escapes from a variety of romantic murders. Unlike Wagner and Berlioz, Liszt never wrote the story of his life, for, as he casually remarked, he was too busy living it.” If it were not for the fact that Liszt’s life had been so thoroughly documented by his contemporaries, we might think that the preceding description by Abraham Veinus was based on some profligate fictional character out of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Not so. By all accounts, Liszt led the most sensational life ever granted to a musician. In his youth and early manhood, he received the sort of wild and unbuttoned adulation that today is seen only at the appearances of a select handful of rock stars. He was the first musical artist in history with enough nerve to keep an entire program to himself rather than providing the grab-bag of orchestral, vocal and instrumental pieces scattered across an evening’s entertainment that was the typical early-19th-century concert. He dubbed those solo concerts “musical soliloquies” at first, and later called them by the now-familiar term, “recitals.” (“How can one recite at the piano? Preposterous!” fumed one British writer.)
By 1848 Liszt had made his fortune, secured his fame and decided that he had been touring long enough, so he gave up performing, appearing in public during the last four decades of his life only for an occasional benefit concert. Amid the variegated patchwork of duchies, kingdoms and city-states that constituted pre-Bismarck Germany, he chose to settle in the small but sophisticated city of Weimar, where Sebastian Bach held a job early in his career. Once installed at Weimar, Liszt took over the musical establishment there and elevated it into one of the most important centers of European artistic culture. He stirred up interest in such neglected composers as Schubert, and encouraged such younger ones as Saint-Saëns, Wagner and Grieg by performing their works. He also gave much of his energy to his own original compositions, and created many of the pieces for which he is known today — the symphonies, piano concertos, symphonic poems and choral works. Liszt had composed before he moved to Weimar, of course — his total output numbers between 1,400 and 1,500 separate works — but the early pieces were mainly piano solos for use at his own recitals. His later works are not only indispensable components of the Romantic musical era in their own right, but also were an important influence on other composers in their form, harmony and poetic content.
As if composing, conducting and performing were insufficient, Liszt was also one of the most sought-after piano teachers of the 19th century. He was popular with students not just because he possessed an awesome technique that was (and remains) the model of every serious pianist. Liszt was also a direct link to that nearly deified figure, the glorious Beethoven, who had, so the story went, actually kissed the young prodigy on the forehead with his own lips. Furthermore, Liszt was a pupil of Carl Czerny, the most eminent student of Beethoven. To make this already unassailable combination of technique and tradition absolutely irresistible, Liszt brought to it an all-encompassing view of man and his world that enabled the mere tones of the piano to surpass themselves and open unspeakable realms of transcendent delight. One friend once remarked about the composer’s wide variety of interests, “One could never know in which mental stall Liszt would find his next hobby horse.” He was a truly remarkable man, one of the most important figures in terms of his cumulative influence on the art in all of 19th-century music.
Liszt sketched his two piano concertos in 1839, during his years of touring the music capitals of Europe, but they lay unfinished until he became court music director at Weimar in 1848. The first ideas for the E-flat Concerto appeared in a notebook as early as 1830, but the score was not completed, according to a letter from Liszt’s eventual son-in-law, the pianist/conductor Hans von Bülow, until June 1849; it was revised in 1853. The premiere was part of a week of gala concerts honoring the music of Hector Berlioz at the Grand Ducal palace in Weimar, thus allowing the French composer to conduct while Liszt played. A memorable evening!
Liszt required of a concerto that it be “clear in sense, brilliant in expression, and grand in style.” In other words, it had to be a knockout. While it was inevitable that the E-flat Concerto would have a high degree of finger-churning display, it was not automatic that it should also be of fine musical quality — but it is. Liszt undertook an interesting structural experiment in the Concerto by fusing the substance of the concerto form with the architecture of the symphony. (“Music is never stationary,” he once pronounced. “Successive forms and styles can only be like so many resting places — like tents pitched and taken down again on the road to the Ideal.”) Though the work is played continuously, four distinct sections may be discerned within its span: an opening Allegro, built largely from the bold theme presented immediately at the outset; an Adagio that grows from a lyrical, arched melody initiated by the cellos and basses; a vivacious, scherzo-like section enlivened by the glistening tintinnabulations of the solo triangle; and a closing Allegro marziale that gathers together the motives of the preceding sections into a rousing conclusion. Of the finale, Liszt wrote, “It is only an urgent recapitulation of the earlier subject matter with quickened, livelier rhythm, and contains no new motive.... This kind of binding together and rounding off of a whole piece at its close is somewhat my own, but it is quite maintained and justified from the standpoint of musical form.” Béla Bartók judged this Concerto, because of its grandiose recall and interpenetration of themes in the finale, to be “the first perfect realization of cyclical sonata form.” It was this formal concept — a single-movement work in several sections utilizing just one or two themes — that Liszt was also to use in his tone poems of the following two decades and in the Second Piano Concerto.
Liszt’s First Concerto drew much criticism when it was new: not for its novel formal construction — but for its innovative use of the triangle. When the piece was first performed in Vienna in 1857, the powerful critic and redoubtable Wagner-Bruckner-Liszt hater, Eduard Hanslick, called it, disparagingly, the “Triangle Concerto.” Liszt rushed to the defense: “As regards the triangle I do not deny that it may give offense, especially if struck too strong or not precisely. A preconceived disinclination and objection to instruments of percussion prevails, somewhat justified by the frequent misuse of them…. In the face of the most wise proscription of the learned critics I shall, however, continue to employ instruments of percussion, and think I shall yet win for them some effects little known.”
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14a
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Composed in 1830.
Premiered on December 5, 1830 in Paris, conducted by François Habeneck.
The only previous PMF performance was in 2003 with Victor Yampolsky conducting.
By 1830, when he turned 27, Hector Berlioz had won the Prix de Rome and gained a certain notoriety among the fickle Parisian public for his perplexingly original compositions. Hector Berlioz was also madly in love. The object of his amorous passion was an English actress of middling ability, one Harriet Smithson, whom the composer first saw when a touring English theatrical company performed Shakespeare in Paris in 1827. During the ensuing three years, this romance was entirely one-sided, since the young composer never met Harriet, but only knew her across the footlights as Juliet and Ophelia. He sent her such frantic love letters that she never responded to any of them, fearful of encouraging a madman. Berlioz, distraught and unable to work or sleep or eat, wandered the countryside around Paris until he dropped from exhaustion and had to be retrieved by friends.
Berlioz was still nursing his unrequited love for Harriet in 1830 when, full-blown Romantic that he was, his emotional state served as the germ for a composition based on a musical “Episode from the Life of an Artist,” as he subtitled the Symphonie Fantastique. In this work, the artist visualizes his beloved through an opium-induced trance, first in his dreams, then at a ball, in the country, at his execution and, finally, as a participant in a witches’ sabbath. She is represented by a musical theme that appears in each of the five movements, an idée fixe (a term Berlioz borrowed from the just-emerging field of psychology to denote an unhealthy obsession) that is transformed to suit its imaginary musical surroundings. The idée fixe is treated kindly through the first three movements, but after the artist has lost his head for love (literally — the string pizzicati followed by drum rolls and brass fanfares at the very end of the March to the Scaffold graphically represent the fall of the guillotine blade and the ceremony of the formal execution), the idée fixe is transmogrified into a jeering, strident parody of itself in the finale in music that is still original and disturbing almost two centuries after its creation. The sweet-to-sour changes in the idée fixe (heard first in the opening movement on unison violins and flute at the beginning of the fast tempo after a slow introduction) reflect Berlioz’s future relationship with his beloved, though, of course, he had no way to know it in 1830. Berlioz did in fact marry his Harriet–Ophelia–Juliet in 1833, but their happiness faded quickly, and he was virtually estranged from her within a decade.
The composer gave the following program as a guide to the Symphonie Fantastique: “A young musician of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of amorous despair. The narcotic dose, too weak to result in death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his sensations, sentiments and recollections are translated in his sick brain into musical thoughts and images. The beloved woman herself has become for him a melody, like a fixed idea which he finds and hears everywhere.
“PART I: Reveries and Passions. He first recalls that uneasiness of soul, that vague des passions, those moments of causeless melancholy and joy, which he experienced before seeing her whom he loves; then the volcanic love with which she suddenly inspired him, his moments of delirious anguish, of jealous fury, his returns to loving tenderness, and his religious consolations.
“PART II: A Ball. He sees his beloved at a ball, in the midst of the tumult of a brilliant fête.
“PART III: Scene in the Country. One summer evening in the country he hears two shepherds playing a ranz-des-vaches in alternate dialogue; this pastoral duet, the scene around him, the light rustling of the trees gently swayed by the breeze, some hopes he has recently conceived, all combine to restore an unwonted calm to his heart and impart a more cheerful coloring to his thoughts; but she appears once more, his heart stops beating, he is agitated with painful presentiments; if she were to betray him! ... One of the shepherds resumes his artless melody, the other no longer answers him. The sun sets ... the sound of distant thunder ... solitude ... silence ...
“PART IV: March to the Scaffold. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death, and led to execution. The procession advances to the tones of a march which is now somber and wild, now brilliant and solemn, in which the dull sound of the tread of heavy feet follows without transition upon the most resounding outburst. At the end, the idée fixe reappears for an instant, like a last love-thought interrupted by the fatal stroke.
“PART V: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. He sees himself at the Witches’ Sabbath, in the midst of a frightful group of ghosts, magicians and monsters of all sorts, who have come together for his obsequies. He hears strange noises, groans, ringing laughter, shrieks to which other shrieks seem to reply. The beloved melody again reappears, but it has lost its noble and timid character; it has become an ignoble, trivial and grotesque dance-tune; it is she who comes to the Witches’ Sabbath.... Howlings of joy at her arrival ... she takes part in the diabolic orgy ... Funeral knells, burlesque parody on the Dies Irae [the ancient ‘Day of Wrath’ chant from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead]. Witches’ Dance. The Witches’ Dance and the Dies Irae together.”
©2011 Dr. Richard E. Rodda