The Peninsula Music Festival - 60th Season 2012 - Program Notes
Program 1 - Tuesday, August 7, 2012 - Festival Opening
Overture to The Bartered Bride
Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884)
Composed in 1863-1866.
Premiered May 30, 1866 in Prague.
It was Johann Herbeck, the noted Viennese conductor who introduced Schubert’s long-forgotten “Unfinished” Symphony to the world in 1865, who sowed the seeds of Smetana’s splendid comic opera, The Bartered Bride. When conductor and composer met in Weimar in 1857, Herbeck allowed that the Czechs were generally fine performers, but seemed incapable of creating their own musical works. Incensed, Smetana returned home to Prague vowing to prove Herbeck wrong. He took an active role in Czech musical life, supporting the new National Theater founded in 1862 and completing his first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, a year later. He found some truth in the criticism that that opera was too Wagnerian in style, and, still not satisfied that he had disproved Herbeck’s comments, he determined to create as its successor a new work more specifically Czech in style. In July 1863 he received a libretto from the writer Karl Sabina that met his requirements, and he began composing The Bartered Bride immediately. (Curiously, Smetana worked from a German translation of the libretto, since his Czech was not as good at the time as was his German, the language of his childhood home, his education and his early professional life.) The Overture was composed first, and the rest of the opera written during the next two years.
The Bartered Bride garnered little success at its first performance, in Prague on May 30, 1866. The day was an official holiday that also proved to be one of the hottest of the year, and most of the opera-going audience had retreated to the country. In addition, political tension between Prussia and Austria was running high (Bohemia — today part of the Czech Republic — like Hungary and Poland, was frequently a point of the contention between those aggressive neighbors), and there was little interest in a new comic opera. War broke out only two weeks after the premiere. Smetana and his family fled from Prague before the invading Prussians (his Brandenburgers in Bohemia had harshly criticized them), and remained away until the army withdrew at the end of the summer. Upon his return, he was made conductor of the National Theater, and resumed his vigorous work to promote Czech music. The Bartered Bride soon came to be recognized as the first great Czech opera, and quickly thereafter gained the popularity it had been denied at its premiere, especially after Smetana reworked the score and dramatic structure of the piece. (The original version was in two acts, had spoken dialogue, no scene changes and no dances. The work went through four extensive revisions before reaching its definitive three-act form with sung recitatives and its wonderful dances.) On May 5, 1882 it was given in Prague for the 100th time. By 1953 it had been performed in that city 2,000 times, and it remains an almost weekly adornment of the repertory of Prague’s National Theater. More than simply a delightful opera, The Bartered Bride — and its composer — became symbols of Czech pride at home and abroad. “Smetana is more than a mere musician,” according to his biographer Vladimir Helfert. “He is one of the chief builders of modern Czech civilization, one of the chief creators of Czech culture.”
The story of The Bartered Bride derives from the personalities, customs and lore of the Czech countryside. The lovers Hans and Marie are prevented from marrying by her father, who has secured a more lucrative nuptial arrangement from the village matchmaker, Kezal. Kezal has engaged Marie to the half-wit Wenzel, son of the second marriage of Micha, a wealthy landowner. Hans makes sure that the marriage contract specifies Marie must wed the son of Micha, and then pockets the money that Kezal promised him for breaking his betrothal to Marie. With a plot twist worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, Hans reveals that he is also the son of Micha — by Micha’s first marriage — and claims Marie as his wife. Wenzel, his mind unhinged at the thought of marriage, appears in a bear costume, and has to be dragged away while the couple and the villagers celebrate the upcoming wedding.
The effervescent Overture (“a grand Allegro” said Smetana) was written before the rest of the opera, and served as the source of themes (“leitmotifs”) later used to identify some of the work’s characters and situations. The boisterous opening melody represents the matchmaker Kezal, the vibrant dance strain (announced by the first entry of the full orchestra after a scurrying fugato passage in the strings) accompanies the signing of the marriage contract, and a lyrical theme (given sweetly by oboes in duet) is associated with Hans. The Bartered Bride Overture is a sparkling jewel set into the never-too-large tiara of comic opera, a bubbling prelude that Donald Tovey praised as creating “the liveliest possible comic atmosphere — such as has no overture since Mozart’s Figaro.”
Symphonic Dances, Op. 64
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Composed in 1898.
Premiered in July 1898 in Bergen, conducted by the composer.
By 1898, the year he composed the Symphonic Dances, the pattern of Grieg’s life had become well established. After serving as conductor of the Harmoniske Selskab in his native Bergen from 1880 to 1882, he never again held an official appointment, freeing him to pursue the things that pleased him the most deeply. Thereafter, he customarily spent the spring and early summer months in the composition of new works or the revision of older ones. Later in the summer he made a journey on foot through the beautiful mountains of Norway, often in the company of such friends as Julius Röntgen or Percy Grainger. The fall and winter were spent in the extensive concert tours as pianist and conductor throughout Europe that Grieg, despite his fragile health, seemed unable to resist. By the last two decades of the 19th century, he was recognized as not only the most prominent musician in Scandinavia, but also as one of the world’s master composers.
Throughout his life, Grieg sought to raise the standards of performance and musical awareness in his native Norway, organizing concerts, writing criticism, encouraging the country’s composers, and contributing articles to European journals. These activities culminated in 1898, when he helped to found the Norwegian Music Festival in Bergen. The preceding year his annual concert tour had taken him to Great Britain, Vienna and Holland, and during his stop in Amsterdam he performed with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and its Music Director, Willem Mengelberg. He was so taken with the high level of that ensemble’s performance that he insisted it be invited to participate in the new Festival in Bergen, despite considerable local criticism for using imported musicians for this national event. The Concertgebouw, however, proved to be the centerpiece of the Festival, and its concerts provided a high and influential standard of excellence for all Norwegian music-making. On July 6, 1898, Grieg wrote to Dr. Max Abraham, director of the Leipzig publishing firm of Peters, “The Festival was in every respect ideal! Everyone applauded. I have never heard better performances. Everyone is rejoicing and all agree that I was right. Now they are saying in Bergen, as in Christiania [Oslo], we must have a better orchestra. That is for me the greatest triumph.” A year later, the new National Theater opened in Oslo with a full symphonic orchestra subsidized by the city.
For the Festival, Grieg was inspired to write for orchestra a set of Symphonic Dances based on Norwegian themes. (Grieg was essentially a miniaturist, and his orchestral catalog is very small: an early, later disowned Symphony; the Piano Concerto; In Autumn, a concert overture; the music for Peer Gynt and Sigurd Jorsalfar; the Holberg Suite; five brief works which are arrangements of keyboard pieces or songs; and the Symphonic Dances, which also exist in the composer’s version for piano duet. The Norwegian Dances were orchestrated by Hans Sitt.) The melodies for the Symphonic Dances were borrowed from Ludvig Mathias Lindeman’s 1853 collection of Norwegian Mountain Melodies Old and New, upon which Grieg had drawn seven years earlier as source material for his Norwegian Dances, Op. 35. The four movements each follow the same ternary formal model with a strongly contrasting middle section (A-B-A) that Dvorák employed for his Slavonic Dances, and also share with those popular pieces an ardent nationalistic spirit and the elevation of indigenous idioms into concert works of international stature. The first two of Grieg’s Dances are symphonic transformations of the halling, which Willi Apel described in the Harvard Dictionary of Music as “a strenuous solo dance for men in which one person in the middle of the room holds a man’s hat on a long pole. Several men in turn try to kick the hat off the pole.” The athletic motions of the halling are perhaps better mirrored in the vigorous opening Dance (whose center section uses an ingenious minor-mode variation of the first part’s main theme) than in the more pastoral second movement, notable for some deliciously delicate scoring for woodwinds and triangle. The lilting third movement is derived from the springdans. The finale, the most symphonic and fully developed of the set, is based on two tunes from Lindeman’s collection which Grieg had already borrowed to include in his 1870 piano arrangements of 25 Norwegian Folksongs and Dances: the peasant dance Såg du nokke Kjaeringa mi? (“Have You Seen My Wife?”) and Brulåten, a wedding tune from Valdres, a mountainous, inland region between Oslo and Bergen. In his study of the composer, John Horton wrote, “The charm of these Dances, apart from the freshness of the tunes themselves, lies in the scope they give for Grieg to display one of his strongest resources — his facility in continuously harmonizing and re-harmonizing a simple diatonic phrase, which, as so often in folk-music, is repeated incessantly, thus giving it a kaleidoscopic background.” Grieg’s Symphonic Dances, added Louis C. Elson, “are like a whiff of pure air.”
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Composed in 1806.
Premiered on December 23, 1806 in Vienna, with Franz Clement as soloist.
In 1794, two years after he moved to Vienna from Bonn, Beethoven attended a concert by an Austrian violin prodigy named Franz Clement. To Clement, then fourteen years old, the young composer wrote, “Dear Clement! Go forth on the way which you hitherto have travelled so beautifully, so magnificently. Nature and art vie with each other in making you a great artist. Follow both and, never fear, you will reach the great — the greatest — goal possible to an artist here on earth. All wishes for your happiness, dear youth; and return soon, that I may again hear your dear, magnificent playing. Entirely your friend, L. v. Beethoven.”
Beethoven’s wish was soon granted. Clement was appointed conductor and concertmaster of the Theater-an-der-Wien in Vienna in 1802, where he was closely associated with Beethoven in the production of Fidelio and as the conductor of the premiere of the Third Symphony. Clement, highly esteemed by his contemporaries as a violinist, musician and composer for his instrument, was also noted for his fabulous memory. One tale relates that Clement, after participating in a single performance of Haydn’s The Creation, wrote out a score for the entire work from memory, which he then submitted to the composer for corrections. So few were needed that the incredulous Haydn was convinced Clement had copied the score, though that was quite impossible since it had not yet been published. Of Clement’s style of violin performance, Boris Schwarz wrote, “His playing was graceful rather than vigorous, his tone small but expressive, and he possessed unfailing assurance and purity in high positions and exposed entrances.” It was for Clement that Beethoven produced his only Violin Concerto.
The Violin Concerto was written during the most productive period of Beethoven’s life: the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Coriolan Overture, the three Op. 59 Quartets, and numerous other works clustered within a few months of its composition in 1806. So busy was Beethoven that he was able to finish the Concerto only on the day of the concert, making orchestral rehearsals for the premiere impossible. Clement, who had probably been following the progress of the work as Beethoven was composing it, must have carried the day, however, because the concert proved to be at least a partial success. Johann Nepomuk Möser provided a review of the performance that was typical of many notices Beethoven received during his lifetime: “The judgment of connoisseurs about Beethoven’s music is unanimous; they acknowledge some beautiful passages in it, but they admit that the work frequently seems to lack coherence and that the endless repetitions of some trite passages tend to be tiring.... There is some fear that Beethoven, by persisting in this, will do serious harm to himself and to the public.... On the whole,” Möser added, “the audience liked this concerto and Clement’s fantasias very much.” The “fantasias” put on display by Clement that evening were his own works, and probably accounted in no small part for the audience’s good response to the concert. Clement was apparently as adept a showman as he was a virtuoso, and he played these pieces, which he programmed between the first two movements of Beethoven’s Concerto, with the instrument turned upside-down, virtually assuring a success. The Viennese public knew a master when they saw one.
Such topsy-turvy histrionics were an accepted (and expected) facet of early 19th-century concert life, and Clement seems, in sum, to have been a fine musician. Certainly the Concerto that he inspired from Beethoven, one of that master’s most endearingly beautiful compositions, is unsurpassed by any other in the entire literature for the violin. Of the seemingly contradictory qualities of grandeur and intimacy in this work, Sir Donald Tovey commented, “Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is gigantic, one of the most spacious concertos ever written, but so quiet that when it was a novelty most people complained quite as much of its insignificance as of its length. All its most famous strokes of genius are not only mysteriously quiet, but mysterious in radiantly happy surroundings. The whole gigantic scheme is serene.” It is not surprising that such an introspective work failed to gain immediate popularity in the age of flamboyant virtuosity that was the 19th-century concert circuit. The Concerto enjoyed very few hearings until another child prodigy, Joseph Joachim, at the age of thirteen, took it up in 1844, and included it in his programs all over Europe. To give it yet another lease on life, Muzio Clementi, the piano virtuoso and music publisher, convinced Beethoven to arrange the score as a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. The most interesting aspect of this transcription was Beethoven’s inclusion of a kettledrum accompaniment for one of the cadenzas.
The sweet, lyrical nature and wide compass of the solo part of this Concerto were influenced by the polished style of Clement’s playing. The five soft taps on the timpani that open the work not only serve to establish the key and the rhythm of the movement, but also recur as a unifying phrase throughout. The main theme is introduced in the second measure by the woodwinds in a chorale-like setting that emphasizes the smooth contours of this lovely melody. A transition, with rising scales in the winds and quicker rhythmic figures in the strings, accumulates a certain intensity before it quiets to usher in the second theme, another legato strophe entrusted to the woodwinds. Immediately after its entry, the violin soars into its highest register, where it presents a touching obbligato spun around the main thematic material of the orchestral introduction. The development section is largely given over to wide-ranging figurations for the soloist. The recapitulation begins with a recall of the five drum strokes of the opening, here spread across the full orchestra sounding in unison. The themes from the exposition return with more elaborate embellishment from the soloist. Following the cadenza, the second theme serves as a coda.
“In the slow movement,” wrote Tovey, “we have one of the cases of sublime inaction achieved by Beethoven and by no one else except in certain lyrics and masterpieces of choral music.” The comparison to vocal music is certainly appropriate for this hymnal movement. Though it is technically a theme and variations, it seems less like some earth-bound form than it does a floating constellation of ethereal tones, polished and hung against a velvet night sky with infinite care and flawless precision. Music of such limited dramatic contrast cannot be brought to a satisfactory conclusion in this context, and so here it leads without pause into the vivacious rondo-finale. The solo violin trots out the principal theme before it is taken over by the full orchestra. This jaunty tune returns three times, the last appearance forming a large coda. The intervening episodes allow for a flashing virtuoso display from the soloist and even a touch of melancholy in one of the few minor-mode sections of the Concerto.
Theodore Front, noting the proportion and assurance that characterize this Concerto, wrote, “This was the period of perfect balance in Beethoven’s creative life — balance between expressive and sensuous elements, between youthful impetus and mature serenity, between 18th-century playfulness and Romantic introspection.”
©2012 Dr. Richard E. Rodda