May 5, 6, 7
Program Notes by Dr. Mark Eliot Jacobs
Jean Sibelius: Valse triste from Kuolema (1903).
Scored for one flute, one clarinet, two horns, timpani, and strings. Approximate performance time six minutes.
Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) composed six pieces for the 1903 play Kuolema (“Death”). Sibelius’ brother-in-law Arvid Järnefelt (1861 – 1932) wrote Kuolema and revised it in 1911. The first of the six musical pieces in the play, Valse Triste (“Sad Waltz”) became famous in its own right and was adapted into the present concert piece. The original 1903 theatrical version, Tempo di valse lente – Poco risoluto, does not survive. The program notes from the original production of Kuolema explain how the piece fits into the context of the drama of the play:
It is night. The son, who has been watching beside the bedside of his sick mother, has fallen asleep from sheer weariness, gradually a ruddy light is diffused through the room: there is a sound of distant music: the glow and the music steal nearer until the strains of a waltz melody float distantly to our ears. The sleeping mother awakens, rises from her bed and, in her long white garment, which takes the semblance of a ball dress, begins to move silently and slowly to-and-fro. She waves her hands and beckons in time to the music, as though she were summoning a crowd of invisible guests. And now they appear, these strange visionary couples, turning and gliding to an unearthly waltz rhythm. The dying woman mingles with the dancers; she strives to make them look into her eyes, but the shadowy guests one and all avoid her glance. Then she seems to sink exhausted on her bed and the music breaks off. Presently she gathers all her strength and invokes the dance once more, with more energetic gestures than before. Back come the shadowy dancers, gyrating in a wild, mad rhythm. The weird gaiety reaches a climax; there is a knock at the door, which flies wide open; the mother utters a despairing cry; the spectral guests vanish; the music dies away. Death stands on the threshold.
Valse triste is one of six orchestral pieces set to animation in Bruno Bozzetto’s film Allegro non troppo (1976). A parody of Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, Allegro non troppo depicts moods ranging from comedic to tragic. Valse triste is joined in the film by Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, Claude Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 7 and more. The overlaying story for Valse triste in the film centers around a cat wandering the ruins of an apartment building and remembering the life she enjoyed there with her human family.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Choral Fantasy, Opus 80 (1808).
Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, chorus, and solo piano. Approximate performance time 19 minutes.
Arguably, the most auspicious concert of western music of all time occurred on December 22, 1808. It was a night of mostly premieres, all of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): The Choral Fantasy, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and the Fourth Piano Concerto. Beethoven conducted and performed as piano soloist. Because of his declining hearing, this would be the last time that he performed a piano concerto in public. This Akademie, a benefit concert, was given for Beethoven himself. It was four hours long and held in the comfortable but unheated Theater an der Wien in Vienna. In addition to the premieres, concert-goers heard performances of the aria Ah! Perfido for soprano and orchestra, The Gloria and Sanctus movements from work in progress, the Mass in C major (commissioned in 1807, published in 1812), and an improvised piano fantasia performed by Beethoven. The improvisation was later transcribed and published as his Fantasia in G-minor, Opus 77.
Unfortunately, scheduling limitations and circumscribed musician availability led to a general paucity of necessary rehearsal time and thus to less than excellent performances. This, together with the sheer length of the concert, the cold temperature in the hall, and the newness of most of the works led Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who attended the concert with Beethoven patron Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, to comment,
There we sat, in the most bitter cold, from half past six until half past ten, and confirmed for ourselves the maxim that one may easily have too much of a good thing, still more of a powerful one.
The grand finale for the evening brought all the musical forces onstage together in a new piece composed especially for the occasion, the Choral Fantasy. The work was barely completed in time to start rehearsals. The libretto for the final part of the piece was set to the already existing music by the poet Christoph Kuffner (1777 – 1846). Kuffner and Beethoven became friends, and in 1826 made plans to collaborate on an oratorio on the subject of King Saul. Sadly, Beethoven’s death in 1827 interceded.
The Choral Fantasy begins with a 26-bar introduction in the solo piano, marked Adagio. This was improvised by Beethoven at the 1808 concert and later transcribed from memory for publication in 1811. The next section, Allegro, is a set of variations in the orchestra and solo piano on a theme derived from Beethoven’s own 1795 song Gegenliebe (“Requited Love”). The nature of the variations, along with the theme’s melody and harmony will remind many of the finale of his great 1824 Ninth Symphony. In many ways, the Choral Fantasy is a prototype for that great finale. Beethoven himself acknowledged the relationship between the two works, characterizing the finale of the Ninth as “… a setting of the words of Schiller’s immortal Lied an die Freude (“Ode to Joy”) in the same way as my pianoforte fantasia with chorus, but on a far grander scale.” Kuffner’s libretto embodies much of the same joyful tone as the Schiller poem.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem in D-minor, K.626 (1791).
Scored for 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings, 4 vocal soloists, and chorus. Approximate performance time 55 minutes.
Anna, the wife of Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach died at the age of 20 on February 14, 1791. The count planned to commemorate her life with a cemetery statue and a requiem mass to be performed on the anniversary of her death every year. The count, himself an amateur musician, had been known to commission pieces of music and then pass them off as his own work. Evidence suggests that it was his intention to do the same thing with the commission of the requiem for his deceased wife. The count approached Mozart (1756 – 1791) in the summer of 1791 anonymously through an intermediary to commission the work. Mozart accepted the commission and was payed one-half of the 225-florin fee which was itself about half of what he would normally charge for a complete opera. For the statuary, the count paid 3000 florins. It is estimated that an 18th Century Austrian florin would have the purchasing power of 65 – 85 modern US dollars.
Mozart was busy that summer with the completion of two operas at once, La clemenza di Tito (“The Clemency of Titus”) in Prague, and Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”) in Vienna. Working on the Requiem had to be postponed until the fall. Once begun, Mozart made great strides with the work, more or less completing it through the beginning of the Lacrimosa movement. He fell ill on November 20, 1791, his illness only becoming life-threatening about a week prior to his demise on the morning of December 5 at the age of 35. The recorded cause of death was miliary fever, a form of tuberculosis. During the final week of his life Mozart made plans for someone else to complete the work in great part to ensure that his wife Constanze would be able to collect the other half of the commission. Thus ensued a kind of double secret: Mozart, and later Constanze, did not know the identity of the commissioner of the requiem, and further it was necessary to disguise the fact that someone else was completing the work, so that Constanze could receive the remainder of the commission.
Constanze asked Mozart’s student Joseph Eybler to complete the work, but he did not get very far. Another Mozart student, Franz Süssmayr took on the project and completed it in time for Constanze to collect the commission. Süssmayr wrote some of the sections himself, but was guided by directions given by Mozart prior to his death. Parts of the end of the requiem are essentially repetitions of the beginning. It is unknown if this was Mozart’s intention or not. Count Walsegg’s plan to pass the work off as his own was ultimately foiled by Constanze who eventually asserted Mozart as the composer of the work in part to ensure future royalty income.
The 1984 play and film Amadeus by Peter Shaffer was based on the 1830 play Mozart and Salieri by Alexander Pushkin, which was also the basis for the 1897 eponymous opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Much of the story of Amadeus, including the suggested nefarious activities of the presumably innocent composer Antonio Salieri can ultimately be connected to rumors spread by Constanze to disguise the events leading up to the completion of the requiem after the composer’s own death.
The Requiem consists of movements of the prescribed type and order of the Catholic mass for the dead, established in the late 16th Century. The choice of the key of D-minor and the predominant use of mid-to-low pitched instruments helps to create the somber mood of the piece. A melancholy motive, D – C-sharp – D – E – F, is first heard in the choir in the Introit movement. It will be heard several times throughout the work. In his 1994 critical edition of the score, the noted scholar Christoph Wolff points out that this motif is similar to that of the Lutheran funeral choral Wenn mien Stündlein vorhanded ist (“If the hour of my death is at hand”). The same choral was quoted by George Frideric Handel in his 1737 funeral anthem for Queen Caroline of Ansbach, The Ways of Zion do Mourn. Handel repurposed his anthem in the opening section of his 1739 oratorio Israel in Egypt. Mozart may well have been aware of these predecessors, referencing them in his Requiem.