Masterworks 3 Program Notes
by Dr. Mark Eliot Jacobs
Hector Berlioz: Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict. Approximate performance time 8 minutes. Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Berlioz (1803 – 1869) composed his two-act opéra comique (his last) to his own libretto based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Béatrice et Bénédict is the first substantial operatic version of Much Ado. Composition began in 1858, with a premiere at Baden-Baden in 1862. The premiere was the inaugural production of the Theater Baden-Baden at Goetheplatz, which was modeled after the Paris Opera.
The opera is not considered part of the standard operatic repertoire and is infrequently performed. It was not performed in the United States until 1977. The overture, on the other hand, is a frequent flyer in the world of symphonic music. Berlioz characterized the work as, “a caprice written with a point of a needle.” This is an apt description of the texture and overall spirit of the music.
The overture introduces music from the opera without becoming a “greatest hits” montage. It begins with a scherzando, introducing the comedic nature of the opera. Next is an Andante featuring the horns. All too soon the overture concludes with a return to the opening section, but with even more élan.
Berlioz was seriously ill with what was then known as “intestinal neuralgia.” In his 1999 Berlioz biography Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness 1832–1869, David Cairns wrote, “Listening to the score’s exuberant gaiety, only momentarily touched by sadness, one would never guess that its composer was in pain when he wrote it and impatient for death”. He died on March 8, 1869 at his home in Paris. His last words were rumored to be “Enfin, on va jouer ma musique.” (“At last, they are going to play my music”)
David Ludwig: Violin Concerto. Approximate performance time: 25 minutes. The Philadelphia Inquirer calls David Ludwig (born 1974) “a composer with something urgent to say.” The New York Times describes his music as “arresting and dramatically hued.” He scored Michael Almereyda’s award-wining film Cymbeline (2014). Read more about Mr. Ludwig at his web site, www.davidludwigmusic.com.
The Violin Concerto (2015) was commissioned by a consortium of American orchestras, including the Rogue Valley Symphony. The composer’s own notes on the Violin Concerto (2015) follow:
I started working on my violin concerto right around the time I got married with Bella Hristova, who (without coincidence) is the violinist I wrote the piece for. I only know of a few concertos written by composers for first performances by their spouses, and I don’t know of any that are motivated by the idea of marriage itself, as this one is. My concerto comes with musical references to partnership, empathy, and communion, as it imagines the before, during, and after a traditional wedding ceremony.
Even though the violin concerto doesn’t tell a specific story, I couldn’t help but write something personal. Both of our backgrounds are Eastern European, and the piece is full of dance music from that part of the world; including several dances native to her native Bulgaria. And like me, Bella comes from a musical family; including her father, Yuri Chichkov, whom she never got a chance to meet before he passed away while she was still a child. Chichkov was a wonderful and well-known Russian composer, who himself wrote a violin concerto. After a year of hunting, I tracked down that concerto and quoted from his second movement at a place in my own second movement – as a way to include him in our marriage. There are lots of other quotes in the piece, but that one is the most significant to me.
The first movement “Dances” begins with a loud crash–a jarring but transformative start to something new that transitions into a waltz-like music soon after. All told there are four dances in the first movement, connected by a cadenza and concluded by a Rachenitsa in its traditional irregular meter. The second movement “Ceremony” follows the progression of the wedding ritual. A slow unraveling processional is woven throughout the fabric of this movement, ending in musical rings created by the rise and fall of the violin against solo instruments in the orchestra. The third movement “The Festival” is my version of a Krivo Horo or “Crooked Dance” that captures the way people attempt to walk home after a great party. The music is celebratory to the end, reflecting the coming together of a community inspired by two people promised to preserve each other’s well-being for the rest of their lives.
Felix Mendelssohn: Fifth Symphony (“Reformation”). Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Approximate performance time: 30 minutes. Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809. The grandson of a philosopher and the son of a banker, he grew up in an atmosphere of wealth and refinement. A musical child prodigy, he received an extensive education from a carefully chosen curriculum and wide travel. Seemingly everything Mendelssohn did came to him without resistance.
In addition to his brilliant talent in composition, he was one of the prime movers in the rediscovery and preservation of the music of Johan Sebastian Bach. In 1829, he led the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin in a ground-breaking performance of the St. Mathew Passion in Berlin, marking the one-hundredth anniversary of the work’s premiere. It was the first time the work had been heard in its entirety outside of Leipzig. His own music displays a Mozartian joy and cleverness, while passionately expressing the ideals of the Romantic movement of the early Nineteenth Century. Mendelssohn’s compositions may have been technically conservative in comparison to his contemporaries Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz, but they were certainly as daring in expression.
Mendelssohn’s symphonies are numbered in order of publication. The order of composition is No. 1, No. 5 Reformation, No. 4 Italian, No. 2 Lobgesang and No. 3 Scottish. There are additionally 12 juvenile string symphonies written when the composer was a pre-teen.
The Protestant Reformation began 500 years ago, nearly to the day, with the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517. Completed in 1830, Mendelssohn’s Reformation symphony was intended for a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V on June 25, 1530. The confession proclaimed the principles of the Protestant Reformation, and its presentation to the emperor was a momentous historical occasion. Mendelssohn began the composition of the symphony in 1829, even before the tercentennial celebrations were announced. Due to a serious case of the measles as the deadline approached, Mendelssohn did not complete it until May of 1830; too late for inclusion in any festivities. The celebration itself was cancelled for political reasons. A performance planned in Paris for 1832 was cancelled when the musicians there declared the piece to be unplayable: “much too learned, too much fugato, too little melody,” was one comment. Mendelssohn conducted the 1832 premiere of the symphony in Berlin. Mendelssohn, stung by the Parisian rejection, was ultimately dissatisfied with the work and withheld it from publication. His own harshest critic, he often held back his scores for revision or ultimate oblivion. Fortunately, the symphony was eventually published in 1868, over 20 years after the composer’s death.
The symphony begins with a four-note motif, the very same one, albeit in transposition, that begins the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. Where Mozart’s use of the motif is playful, Mendelssohn’s is reverent. Another element of the first movement (also heard elsewhere in the symphony) is the Dresden Amen, a rising sequence of chords from the Lutheran liturgy. The characteristic rising four-note motif in the upper voices of the Amen is unmistakable. The amen will also be familiar to listeners from its prominent place as the Grail leitmotif in Wagner’s Parsifal.
Although the outer movements of the symphony are rather ceremonial and tending toward the programmatic, the two internal movements are squarely in the spirit of the classical symphonic tradition. The second movement is a scherzo, marked Allegro vivace. The movement is characterized by a fleet mercurial rhythm that appears in nearly every bar. The penultimate Andante is a lyrical song featuring the violins. It ends with a cadenza-like solo in the flute which chains directly into the finale.
The last movement, like the first, is in sonata form. Its principle theme is Martin Luther’s hymn-tune Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”) which Luther composed while the Augsburg Confession was in session. A century before Mendelssohn, J. S. Bach composed a cantata on the Ein feste Burg theme to mark the Augsburg bicentennial. The coda of the movement presents a full-voiced version of Luther’s chorale for the full orchestra.