February 24, 25, 26
Program Notes by Ed Wight
Ludwig van Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3 (1806).
It may not be mere coincidence that shortly after moving into a theater in 1803 (an apartment in Vienna’s Theatre an der Wien) Beethoven finally turned his attention to opera. Beethoven’s legendary struggles with Fidelio include three versions of the opera (1805, 1806, and 1814), and four overtures. Leonore Overture no. 2 accompanied the 1805 premier, and today’s piece – Leonore Overture no. 3 – appeared with the 1806 revision. (The theater insisted on calling both of those productions Fidelio, but Beethoven preferred the title Leonore from the original French libretto.) His fourth overture, the new Fidelio Overture which accompanied the 1814 version, avoids using any music from the opera. By this time, Beethoven finally acquiesced to that title for the opera as well.
Beethoven wrote what is now called Leonore Overture no. 1 in 1807, for a potential performance in Prague which apparently never materialized. This overture was unknown, found only after his death, and was mistakenly thought to be his first. (And if you find these overture numbers confusing, take a close look sometime at the chronology of the five Mendelssohn symphonies!) Florestan is unjustly imprisoned and sentenced to die, his wife Leonore vows to save him, and all three Leonore overtures include music from the opera.
Both the opera and Leonore Overture no. 3 depict a central Beethoven theme: darkness and dramatic struggle leading to triumph. The overture opens with a dark Adagio introduction, with the clarinet melody borrowed from Florestan’s main aria in the Spanish dungeon. In the sonata-form Allegro movement which follows, aspects of Beethoven’s mature style come to the fore. His penchant for motivic saturation appears in the syncopated primary theme that dominates much of the movement. At one point that syncopated motive appears in sixteen consecutive bars in this opening section, and variants of it occur in the transition, closing, development and coda sections.
He sets the brief secondary theme in E Major, an unusual key for a sonata-form movement opening in C Major. Late 18th-century composers such as Haydn and Mozart would have chosen the conventional G Major. Yet Beethoven had already expanded upon this traditional key choice, as his ‘Waldstein’ piano sonata and Triple Concerto (both from 1804) established similarly remote secondary keys. But programmatic elements also play a role in this secondary theme, as Beethoven borrows both the key (E Major), and a melodic variant from Leonore’s Komm, Hoffnung (“Come, hope”) aria from Act 1.
Programmatic elements continue in the development section, as it features the offstage trumpet call signaling Don Fernando’s imminent arrival which it is hoped will save Florestan. Beethoven’s extensive Presto coda symbolizes the triumphant final chorus after all prisoners are freed. This is the most popular of the four overtures, and English musicologist and critic Donald Tovey calls it “one of the greatest instrumental compositions in existence.” Tovey also felt it was so dramatic that Beethoven had to replace it, as otherwise “it would absolutely kill the first act.”
Sergey Vasilenko: Concerto Poem for Trumpet, Op. 113 (1945).
Sergey Vasilenko (1872-1956) fashioned a successful career as composer, teacher and conductor. After attending the Moscow Conservatory in 1895-1901 as a student of Taneyev and Ippolitov-Ivanov, he won a faculty position and taught there for almost fifty years (1907-41 and from 1943 until his death in 1956). He was a prominent conductor in Moscow for over twenty years, including founding and conducting the Historic Concerts of the Russian Music Society 1901-17. He developed a special gift for orchestration, writing six operas, seven ballets, five symphonies, many concertos, as well as chamber music (including two string quartets) and songs based on Russian folk music. His music deserves to be much better known, but the Soviets played a major role in its obscurity.
The Soviet dictates resulting in disapproval of such major composers as Shostakovich and Prokofiev affected every Russian composer as well. Vasilenko disavowed his wealthy, aristocratic heritage and his private religious convictions after the Soviets came to power and his brief imprisonment in 1918. He stopped writing vocal music based on Russian folksong after 1916, because the atheist Soviet regime disapproved of the spiritualism in this traditional genre. One reason his music remains relatively unknown is that so much of it went unpublished during his lifetime. One of his only published ballets – surprise! – was the one he dedicated to Stalin in 1925, Josef the Beautiful. He became the first Russian composer to write an important body of works for the viola, in part inspired by the viola virtuoso Vadim Boriskovsky. Yet in 1930, when a Soviet committee declared the viola not an important instrument, this forced Boriskovsky’s students to switch to violin – resulting in another group of Vasilenko’s compositions going unpublished. After his imprisonment and later reinstatement at the Moscow Conservatory, he kept his head down for the rest of his life saying he wanted “to feed his [extended] family.”
A master of the concerto genre, Vasilineko wrote two violin concertos, as well as single concertos for cello, harp, balalaika, piano, horn, and clarinet. He wrote this concerto for trumpet soloist Sergey Einem in 1945. Reminiscent of Brahms’s long collaboration with violinist Josef Joachim, another major trumpet virtuoso – Timofei Dokshitzer – helped Vasilenko revise it for the edition now performed. After the introduction, the trumpet enters with a powerful fanfare-like theme which Vasilenko returns to in the third movement. The first movement continues with a new dramatic theme in C Minor, a soft, cantabile theme and a light but challenging virtuosic closing theme. He reprises all four themes later in the movement.
One of his students, Aleksandr Aleksandrov, wrote the Russian national anthem in 1943, and Soviet authorities invited Vasilenko to help orchestrate the final version. His celebrated gifts as an orchestrator are also on special display in the second movement. It opens briefly with a soft woodwind choir, before the solo trumpet plays the opening theme. After a transition in the lower string and winds, an atmospheric passage for high strings, reminiscent of many a Verdi heavenly apotheosis, introduces the lyrical secondary theme for trumpet. After a dramatic climax, this theme returns later, and leading into it, Vasilenko rescores the introductory wind choir – adding strings for the loveliest passage in the movement. A delightfully lighthearted, rondo-like movement with at least three themes (and maybe four) closes the concerto with further virtuoso fireworks.
Astor Piazzolla: Libertango (1973).
Sometimes you can go home again. As a young man in the 1940s, Argentinian composer Astor Piazzola mastered the Bandoneon (a type of keyboard accordion), leading or playing in several top bands. They played popular, folk and dance music, primarily tangos. But Piazzolla was also drawn to such contemporary classical composers as Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky. After studying with the celebrated composition teacher Nadia Boulanger in 1954, he began writing “Nuevo Tangos.” Bristling with jazz elements, dissonant harmony, and 20th-century specialist string techniques, many of the established Argentine tango players rejected these new sounds out of hand.
However, foreign audiences, especially in America and France embraced the style. By the time Piazzolla returned home in the early 1980s, following two decades of international acclaim, Argentina celebrated him as a cultural hero. Ironically, Piazzolla was now considered “the savior of the tango” (2001 New Grove Dictionary), which had begun dying out in the 1950s and 1960s. As his fame spread far beyond Argentina, he soon became the most performed of all Latin American composers.
Piazzolla wrote Libertango while living in Italy in 1973. He said the title “stands for the freedom which I allow for my musicians.” Unlike his more progressive “Nuevo Tangos,” this piece stays a bit closer to the classical tango style with primarily balanced four and eight-bar phrasing throughout. The opening eight-bar refrain, frequently repeated, alternates with some more colorful harmonic episodes in a sweet and sultry dance-like piece. It has become one of Piazzola’s most popular pieces, with arrangements for many different instruments. The solo line (in this case, arranged for trumpet) displays Piazzolla’s jazz background, with the soloist free to alter the melody wherever desired.
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4, Op. 98 (1885).
In 1850, Wagner wrote that the traditional four-movement symphony was dated; anachronistic. However the celebrated generation of symphony composers in the 1860s – including Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Borodin – soon exposed the misleading, partisan nature of Wagner’s remarks. Brahms waited another decade to join their ranks, as it was in his chamber works from the 1860s that he “fully mastered [both] large-scale instrumental form and thematic-motivic development” (Brahms scholar Walter Frisch). When this notoriously self-critical composer finally felt ready, and wrote his first symphony in 1876 at age 43, he had already outlived Schubert, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Chopin (all of whom died before the age of 40).
Brahms finished his fourth and final symphony in 1885, and it opens quietly – with a lyrical 8-bar theme in E Minor answered by an 11-bar response. At the end of the transition section which follows in this Sonata-form movement, Brahms writes a 4-bar staccato fanfare in forte dynamics which recurs often throughout the movement. It is immediately followed by a dramatic secondary theme in B Minor for the cellos, and later a softer closing theme in B Major. And unlike so many movements opening in minor but closing triumphantly in major, Brahms’s thunderous and powerful coda reconfirms the minor mode.
In the pastoral Andante moderato in E Major which follows, Brahms writes “arguably the most beautiful of all the slow movements in his symphonies” (music critic Jack Sullivan). The primary theme in this Sonata-form movement consists of a horn call followed by its appearance in a softer, varied form for the clarinets against pizzicato strings. When the violins shift to a soaring legato version of this theme at the opening of the transition, Brahms creates perhaps the most glorious moment in this movement. A staccato passage for the winds at the end of the transition section anticipates the melody of the lyrical secondary theme for the cellos, which immediately follows. After the sudden and prolonged thunder in the middle of the recap, the primary theme returns in the clarinets (with timpani accompaniment) to open a primarily gentle coda.
Brahms now turns to his only symphonic Scherzo (after writing lighter, Allegretto intermezzos in his earlier symphonies). Lasting 357 bars, it constitutes the largest of all Brahms’s internal symphony movements. But unlike a traditional triple meter scherzo and trio, Brahms writes a lively duple-meter movement in Sonata form. The last of the four movements written, Brahms apparently felt this bright, scherzo-like mood was necessary, an “aggressive blast of C Major…within the fourth symphony which is otherwise elegiac [and] pensive” (Walter Frisch). Perhaps reflecting the Allegro giocoso tempo (“playful, jesting”) it also provides Brahms’s only use of a triangle in any of his four symphonies!
In the celebrated finale, Brahms reaches back to a genre from the Baroque era – a continuous set of 30 ostinato variations on an 8-bar harmonic progression. Referred to as either a Chaconne or a Passacaglia, he modeled it in part on a chaconne from Bach’s Cantata 150. It was a stroke of genius; there was no precedent for using a passacaglia or chaconne as a symphony finale. After the powerful ‘theme’ and eleven variations, Brahms slows the tempo, shifts to 3/2 meter, and softens the orchestra “for one of the most poignant flute solos ever written” (Brahms biographer Malcolm Musgrave). The extraordinary orchestral colors continue in the next variations, as Brahms shifts to E Major for more woodwind solos followed by a glorious low brass choir. Brahms interrupts this gentle reverie with a ferocious return to Allegro tempo and the minor mode, which holds for the remainder of the symphony.
When Wagner dismissively referred to Brahms’s symphonies as merely ‘chamber music for orchestra,’ both components of that phrase instead show Brahms to great advantage. His great breadth in the chamber genre – cello, violin and clarinet sonatas, piano trios, string quartets, piano quartets, string quintets, piano quintets, and string sextets – resulted in “the greatest body of chamber music since Beethoven (New Grove).” And while the Liszt symphonic poems and others of the ‘new German school’ of Wagner’s era receive few performances in the 20th and 21st centuries, Brahms’s symphonies immediately entered the permanent orchestral repertory. Conductor and musicologist Leon Botstein writes that “by the mid-20th century they ranked second in popularity only to Beethoven.” The late stylistic maturity of the four Brahms symphonies proved well worth the wait.