2016-17 Season Program Notes

A Musical Promenade

Georgia Symphony Orchestra
A Musical Promenade
Saturday, October 22, 2016

Rimsky-Korsakov Procession of the Nobles
Coleridge-Taylor Africa Suite: Danse Nègre
de Falla Danza ritual del fuego
Bernstein Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition

Program Notes

The Georgia Symphony Orchestra opens the 2016-2017 Master Works season with new Music Director Timothy Verville in a celebration of festive music and visual art! Music moves us as we process to music of Rimsky-Korsakov, dance to music of Coleridge-Taylor, de Falla and Bernstein, and promenade through Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

 

As one of “The Mighty Five,” a group of Russian nationalist composers, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) composed orchestral masterpieces based on folk materials, among them the Capriccio Espagnol, based on Spanish melodies, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, based on the Russian Orthodox liturgy, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade, based on the story “One Thousand and One Nights,” also called “The Arabian Nights.” For his opera Mlada (1889-90), a Russian myth inspired a spectacle of singing, dancing and scenery in a tale of nobles, gods, goddesses, and the supernatural, even involving, like Wagner in his “Ring” operas, the symbolic use of a ring. The second act begins with the “Procession of the Nobles,” a march in, uncommonly, a 3/4 meter, a series of hearty fanfares separated by brief passages of a lighter nature.

Composers in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries were greatly encouraged in their efforts by visits from composers such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), a well-known Afro-British composer. His Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, influenced by “The Song of Hiawatha” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was one of England’s most popular choral works, along with Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Handel’s Messiah. In 1896, Coleridge-Taylor, then a student at the Royal College of Music, met African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) while the poet was on a reading tour of England. Profoundly influenced by Dunbar, the composer thereafter explored “African” themes in his music. “Danse Nègre,” inspired by Dunbar’s writing, is the final movement of Coleridge-Taylor’s African Suite (1898), its primary tune a lilting melody, first played by the flute, reminiscent of traditional African-American folk songs.

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was a Spanish composer who thoroughly integrated the flavors of his country’s music with contemporary orchestration. Such was Falla’s perfectionism, though, that he left only few major works, one of them the “ballet pantomime,” El amor brujo (Love, the Magician) of 1915. Though not initially successful as a showpiece for Pastora Imperio, a then-popular singer and dancer, Falla’s work has found greater appreciation in the concert hall as an orchestral suite. In El amor brujo, Candela, a widowed gypsy, persuades a friend to flirt with the ghost of her late husband, this in order to free her of his jealousy and unwanted attentions. In the “Ritual Fire Dance” (“Danza ritual del fuego”), a short, energetic showpiece featuring fast trills, melodic ornamentation, and lively rhythms, Candela dances around the campfire at night in an attempt to ward off her husband’s evil spirit.

The popularity of Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) with choreography by Jerome Robbins, was so successful with wartime audiences that they used its “leftovers” as the basis for On the Town, which opened on Broadway as a musical / operetta the same year. Both shows portray the exploits of sailors on leave in New York and feature primarily dance routines. The 1949 film version of On the Town starred Gene Kelly. In 1946, Bernstein arranged three extracts from On the Town for orchestra in a suite called “Three Dance Episodes,” these representing, in his own words, “the essence” of the first Broadway show to have “seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts.” Of “The Great Lover,” its opening reminiscent of West Side Story, Bernstein writes: “Gaby, the romantic sailor in search of the glamorous Miss Turnstiles, falls asleep in the subway and dreams of his prowess in sweeping Miss Turnstiles off her feet.” The subdued second movement, “Lonely Town (Pas de deux),” paints a romantic but darker picture: “Gaby watches a scene, both tender and sinister, in which a sensitive high-school girl in Central Park is lured and then cast off by a worldly sailor.” The finale, “Times Square: 1944,” is a fantastic riff on the show’s best-known melody, “New York, New York,” “a more panoramic sequence in which all the sailors in New York congregate in Times Square for their night of fun. There is communal dancing, a scene in a souvenir arcade, and a scene in the Roseland Dance Palace.”

Born of well-to-do landowners, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was headed for a career in the military until he met Mily Balakirev. Balakirev dreamed of founding a school of Russian nationalist composers, whose music would be based on Russian folk music and culture. Together with Mussorgsky, César Cui, Aleksandr Borodin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, he formed “The Mighty Five,” composers who wrote music with no need of outside influences to feed their Russian souls. Mussorgsky had some success with his music, but, personally and professionally disorganized, he left projects unfinished and could not lift himself out of poverty and alcoholism. Upon his death, the preservation, editing and completion of his works became totally dependent upon others. Thus, as annotator Aaron Grad writes, we hear his music “through the prism of another composer,” in Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of his Night on Bald Mountain, for example, or Ravel’s orchestration of his Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky was best known for his opera Boris Godunov (1873), a Russian historical-political saga based on a drama by Pushkin, the only major work he ever completed.

Shortly after the death of Viktor Hartman (1834-1873), a prominent Russian architect and painter, Mussorgsky viewed an exhibition of his friend’s water colors and drawings, then memorialized him by setting ten of them to music for piano, a work completed in 1874. In 1922, conductor Serge Koussevitsky suggested that French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) orchestrate the suite. Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition , has been an audience favorite since its premiere in Paris in 1922. While staying true to the notes of a piano score already heavily edited by Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel freely added and changed dynamics and attack markings, and provided precise instrumentation, such that his version of Pictures at an Exhibition, so brilliant and original, and now so familiar, is accepted as the definitive realization of Mussorgsky’s work.

Our viewing of Hartman’s artwork begins with a “Promenade” theme in the brass, suggestive of spectators moving around the gallery, with the theme’s various versions and moods serving as links between selections. Music for the first painting, “Gnomus,” captures the capricious and sinister character of a nutcracker designed by Hartman, a Christmas toy in the shape of an evil gnome. A more delicate promenade leads to the second painting, “Il Vecchio castello” (“The Old Castle”), a watercolor of a troubadour performing in front of a medieval Italian castle. Its wistful spirit is evoked by a plaintive melody first heard on the alto saxophone. A short but purposeful promenade takes us to “Tuileries,” a watercolor of the famed Parisian gardens, subtitled “Children at Play,” with the calls and taunts of youngsters mimicked by clarinets. The next image, “Bydlo” (“cattle” in Polish), is a drawing of oxen pulling a heavy cart with wooden wheels, its lumbering movement realized as a ponderous tune in the tuba. Another promenade brings us to the whimsical “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” Hartman’s costume design for an 1870 children’s ballet which depicted canaries dancing with only their legs sticking out of their shells. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” represents drawings of “Two Polish Jews – One Rich, the Other Poor.” Goldenberg is characterized by a rather pompous melody in the low strings, Schmuyle by a high-pitched wheedling melody on the trumpet. Hartman drew these figures from life, and Mussorgsky so liked the drawing that Hartman presented it to him. The lively “Limoges: The Market” depicts a group of old women, bags and baskets in hand, thoroughly enjoying themselves at a bustling French market. “Catacombs,” with its somber harmonies played in low registers, is a self-portrait of Hartman as he explores the Roman catacombs beneath the streets of Paris with architect Vasiliy Kenel and a guide with a lantern. The “Promenade” theme re-appears in “Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua,” labeled “with the dead in a dead language.” Of this movement, Mussorgsky wrote, “Hartman’s creative spirit leads me to the place of skulls and calls to them – the skulls begin to glow faintly from within.” “For “The Little Hut on Chicken’s Legs,” Hartman designed a clock face representing the witch Baba Yaga riding on a broomstick. In the Russian fairy tale, Baba Yaga lives on the edge of a forest in a cottage supported by the legs of a giant fowl, legs which turn on command so that the cottage faces approaching visitors. Our gallery tour ends at “The Great Gate of Kiev,” designed by Hartman to commemorate the attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Though never built, it lives on in Mussorgsky’s music which, along with Ravel’s rich orchestration, so aptly reflects the grandiose nature of the triumphal archway as originally conceived. Our gallery tour comes to a thunderous close with a brief reappearance of the “Promenade” theme.

 

  • Michaelene Gorney

Rimsky-Korsakov, Russian 5, Vol 4, State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, Evgeny Svetlanov conducting, BGM Classics CD 09026-62684-2.

Andrews University Symphony Orchestra, Great Master of Russian Music, April 13, 2008, Program Notes by Linda Mack, 2008, https://www.andrews.edu/~mack/pnotes/apr1308pnotes.html#rimsky.

American Heritage Symphonic Series Vol 1, Chicago Sinfonietta, Paul Freeman, Conductor, liner notes by Dominique-René de Lerma, Cedille Records, CDR 90000 055, 2000.

Oregon Symphony, September 13, 2016, Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz, 2014, http://www.orsymphony.org/concerts/1415/programnotes/sc3.aspx.

Manuel de Falla, Orchestral Works, Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting, liner notes by Julian Haylock, Sony Essential Classics CD SBK 89291, 2000.

American Masterpieces: Bernstein, Barber, Gershwin, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Leonard Bernstein conducting, liner notes by David Montgomery, Deutsche Grammaphon CD 471 737-2.

Leonard Bernstein, On the Town, Working Notes, http://www.leonardbernstein.com/onthetown_notes.htm.

Cal Performances, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, November 22, 2009, Program Notes by Aaron Grad, http://calperformances.org/learn/program_notes/2009/pn_shanghai.pdf

Jonathan Kramer, Listen to the Music: A Self-Guided Tour Through the Orchestral Repertoire, Schirmer Book, New York, New York, 1998.

“Images for Pictures at an Exhibition” by Tim Eagen, January, 2000, http://www.stmoroky.com/reviews/gallery/pictures/hartmann.htm.

America, Vol. 1

Georgia Symphony Orchestra

America, Vol. 1

Saturday, February 18, 2017

 

Program Notes

America, Vol. 1 is the first concert in a new series exploring the rich tapestry that encompasses American classical music. Throughout the multi-year initiative, you’ll experience the music you love to hear, and music that rings true across all GSO ensembles. These works capture the quintessential essence of the wide-reaching American experience. Excitement, exhilaration, the depths of solitude, and more – the first works in our series are bound by their directness of expression and genuine approach to connecting with listeners.

 

Born in Wahoo, Nebraska, Howard Hanson (1896-1981) did much to promote American music, and not just his own. After graduating from Northwestern University at the age of 19, he taught for a few years, then spent three years in Rome after winning the Prix de Rome. While in Rochester, New York, to conduct his “Nordic” Symphony No. 1, Op. 22, Hanson’s dynamic personality and administrative skills caught the attention of George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, who had just endowed a music school at the University of Rochester. At 28, Hanson became the first director of the Eastman School of Music, where he founded the Institute of American Music at Eastman, a project that led to the performance of music by many contemporary composers.

 

Inspired by the Romantics, notably the symphonies of Finland’s Jean Sibelius and the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt, Hanson wrote music that was much more traditional and conservative than that of his contemporaries. Of his five symphonies, one of the most important is his Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, the “Romantic,” of 1930.   Of Symphony No. 2, Hanson wrote: “The symphony for me represents my escape from the rather bitter type of modern musical realism [that] occupies so large a place in contemporary thought. Much contemporary music seems to me to be…. entirely too cerebral. I do not believe that music is primarily a matter of the intellect, but rather a manifestation of the emotions. I have, therefore, aimed in this Symphony to create a work that was young in spirit, lyrical and romantic in temperament, and ample and direct in expression.” Joseph Machlis writes: “In an age opposed to sentiment and rhetoric, this symphony is unashamedly sentimental and rhetorical.”

 

Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 is in three movements, its cyclical nature reflected in the recurrence of musical ideas first heard in the opening movement. An atmospheric Adagio precedes the first movement proper, an Allegro moderato, in which dramatic fanfares alternate with more lyrical sections, among them a “chorale” for strings and solo horn. A brief coda quietly closes the movement.   The second movement, Andante con tenerezza, opens and closes with one of Hanson’s most memorable and Romantic melodies. The middle section, based on motives heard in the first movement, is interrupted by florid woodwind passages. The final movement, Allegro con brio, summarizes the entire symphony as it recalls thematic materials from the first and second movements, like the first movement alternating drama and lyricism. A final fanfare builds to the symphony’s conclusion.

 

Samuel Barber (1910-1981), born in Westchester, Pennsylvania, was a true American prodigy, playing piano at six, composing at seven, and entering the Curtis Institute of Music at 14. He began as a pianist and a vocalist but it was as a composer that he made his mark. Although he wrote in a variety of styles - “It is said that I have no style at all," he said - like Hanson he rejected the austere style of his contemporaries and it is his melodies, such as those found in the beautiful Adagio for Strings and Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which are truly memorable. His works include three operas and a ballet as well as works for orchestra, chorus and solo voice, and piano. Barber's single organ work, “Wondrous Love,” is a set of variations on a shape-note hymn.

 

The Agnus Dei is a choral arrangement of the composer's Adagio for Strings, itself a string orchestra arrangement of the second movement of his String Quartet, Opus 11, written in 1936. The orchestral version was often performed by conductor Arturo Toscanini, and its sustained melodic lines and lush harmonies were used to great effect in the film Platoon. Barber received several requests for arrangements of the Adagio and transcribed the work for chorus in 1967, using the Agnus Dei text. In this work, phrases usually begin with a single voice, followed by others which fill out the underlying harmony, as a step-wise melody slowly rises and unfolds toward an intense climax. To quote J. Peter Burkholder: “The sense of suspension, of slowed-down time, creates an impression of deep feeling that can scarcely be borne...”

 

Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland (1900-1990), who first composed in a modernistic style, in the 1930s set out to cultivate an “American” music that was simple and direct, with generally traditional melodies and harmonies related to folk and patriotic subjects. Inspired by the Shaker tradition (Appalachian Spring), the Old West (Billy the Kid and Rodeo), and wartime patriotism (A Lincoln Portrait and Letter from Home), he broadened the appeal of serious music in the United States, also writing for children and high schoolers, and providing film scores for adaptations of works by Americans Thornton Wilder (Our Town), Lillian Hellman (North Star), Henry James (The Heiress) and John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men). Copland believed that the creative spirit manifested itself in the music of “our America.” “…the creative act,” he wrote, “affirms the individual, and gives value to the individual, and through him to the nation of which he is a part.”

 

Copland’s first set of Old American Songs was written in 1950 at the request of English composer Benjamin Britten for performance at that composer’s Aldeburgh Festival; the second set followed in 1952. The songs range from folk ballads, lullabies, and revivalist hymns to popular theater numbers. Copland’s selection of songs, personally researched from early sources, gave new life to tunes almost forgotten and prompted a renewed interest in American folk music.

 

Set 1: “The Boatman’s Dance” is a minstrel show tune, an “original banjo melody” written in 1843 by Daniel Decatur Emmett, who later composed “Dixie.” Copland designed the song to reflect the Ohio River landscape, as demonstrated by the call and echo effect employed prior to each verse. A version of “The Dodger” appeared in the collection Our Singing Country published by John A. and Alan Lomax. This song was supposedly used in the campaign leading up to the 1884 presidential election won by Grover Cleveland. Copland reduced this song to three essential verses, “The Candidate,” “The Preacher,” and “The Lover,” changing the song’s rhythm and tempo to allow for dramatic singing and a lively accompaniment. “Long Time Ago” is a sentimental ballad and minstrel song, its lyrics adapted by American poet and songwriter George Pope Morris in 1837, with English composer Charles Edward Horn setting the words to music. “Simple Gifts” is a Shaker hymn dating from the mid-1800s, its text and melody quoted by Edward D. Andrews in The Gift to be Simple: Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers of 1940. Copland brought the tune to prominence when he used it as the basis for a masterful set of variations in his ballet, Appalachian Spring. In the playful nonsense song, “I Bought Me a Cat,” a children’s song which originated in the British Isles, singers and orchestra venture outside traditional boundaries as they imitate the sounds of barnyard animals.

 

Set 2: “Little Horses,” a children’s lullaby originating in the South, and possibly of African-American origins, is based on “All the Pretty Little Horses” as found in the Lomaxes’ Folk Song: U.S.A. “Zion’s Walls” is an American shape-note tune and revivalist song. Copland also used the tune of “Zion’s Walls” with different words in “The Promise of Living” from his opera, The Tender Land. Its original melody and text were credited to John G. McCurry, a farmer from Hart County, Georgia, who published the song collection The Social Harp in 1855. “The Golden Willow Tree” is a version of “The Golden Vanity,” an Anglo-American ballad also set by Benjamin Britten Copland's version is based on a performance by Justus Begley (with banjo accompaniment), recorded for Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in 1937. “At the River” is a tender hymn tune written by Robert Lowry, American literature professor and Baptist minister, that dates from 1865. It was later sung in memorial concerts for both Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. “Ching-a-Ring Chaw,” an optimistic “ditty” characterized by syncopation and quickly sung syllables, is a re-writing of a minstrel song found in Brown University’s Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays.

 

- Michaelene Gorney

 

Bibliography:

The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, Don Michael Randel, ed., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 1996.

The Concise Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music, Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., Schirmer Books, New York, New York, 1994.

Joseph Machlis, The Enjoyment of Music, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, New York, 1977.

Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2 “Romantic,” Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwartz, liner notes by Steven Lowe, NAXOS American Classics CD 8.559701.

Canton Symphony Orchestra, Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 (Romantic), by Howard Hanson, Program Notes by Kenneth C. Viant, https://www.cantonsymphony.org/441.

Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/ .

Aaron Copland, Copland on Music, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, New York, 1960.

New Mexico Philharmonic, Aaron Copland: Selections from Old American Songs (1950-1952), program notes unattributed, http://nmphil.org/concerts/repertoire/copland-old-american-songs/.

The Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra, Old American Songs program notes by Jonathan Gentry, February 28, 2011, http://gdyo.blogspot.com/2011/02/program-notes-for-upcoming-march-6.html.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Aaron Copland (1900-1990), “Old American Songs,” program notes by Steven Ledbetter, annotator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998, http://bso.http.internapcdn.net/bso/images/program_notes/COPLAND_Selection-of-Old-American-Songs.pdf.

 

Just the Beginning

Georgia Symphony Orchestra

Just the Beginning

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The end of the season is just the beginning as the Georgia Symphony Orchestra performs an evening of preludes, overtures and concert openers by some of the greatest composers.  Our finale goes out with a bang to the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with the GSO Chorus!  With orchestrations that capitalize on the GSO’s many talents, some of these “introductions,” strong enough to stand on their own as concert pieces, are now more popular and well-known that the larger works for which they were written.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is the only one of the "great" composers who is equally famous for instrumental works as well as operas, his symphonies, concertos, and chamber music representing a still unsurpassed accomplishment of quality and quantity.  Yet, for all his versatility, Mozart’s greatest ambition was to compose opera.  “Í have only to hear an opera discussed,” he said, “I have only to sit in a theater, hear the orchestra tuning their instruments – oh I am quite beside myself at once…. I envy anyone who is composing one.  I could really weep for vexation when I hear an aria.”  Die Zauberflöte, or The Magic Flute, is an allegory evoking ancient Egypt, Islamic influences, neo-classical architecture, exotic costumes and settings, and priestly ceremonies, theatrical trappings which masked its true intention as a representation of Freemasonery.  A singspiel (literally translated as “sing-play”), The Magic Flute employs spoken dialog as well as singing, and uses the German language, as opposed the traditional Italian.  Its premiere in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, was a great success.

The Overture to The Magic Flute, the last part of the opera to be written, as was typical of Mozart, is a masterful work which perfectly balances the opera’s opposing qualities of profundity and comedy, akin to the best of today’s dramatic comedies.  The slow introduction opens with triple chords associated in the opera with the solemn ceremonies of the priests, the only thematic material borrowed from the opera.  The Allegro, built on a jocular opera buffa tune, is treated as a fugue, in which iterations of the tune are played over and against each other.  A secondary theme, first heard in the flute, is characterized by ascending chromatic scales.  The remainder of the Overture is quite traditional, with the priestly chords marking the beginning of the Overture’s development section.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) was world-renowned by the age of twenty as a pianist, composer and innovative conductor, who promoted the use of a baton – as opposed to the hand, a rolled-up piece of paper or a violin bow – and the granting of musical control to a specific individual.  In-demand and over-committed, Mendelssohn produced hundreds of stage, orchestral, choral, piano, and chamber works, and his death of a stroke at age thirty-eight was mourned from Russia to the Americas.

Mendelssohn considered himself an heir to the methodical Johann Sebastian Bach, whose forgotten works he revived and tirelessly promoted.  At the same time, his Romanticism reveals itself in the programmatic nature and titles of his works, among them the “Scottish” Symphony, the “Italian” Symphony, the “Reformation” Symphony, music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Hebrides Overture (“Fingal’s Cave”), inspired by an 1829 visit to Scotland which included the Hebrides Islands.  The overture’s opening theme, an illustration of how profoundly the Hebrides had influenced the young composer, is associated with Fingal’s Cave, a grotto on the island of Staffa.  Perhaps recognizing his own penchant for classical structure, Mendelssohn wrote of this work that the development “tastes more of counterpoint than of whale oil, seagulls, and cod liver oil, and it ought to be the other way around.”  Yet thousands of listeners might beg to disagree, as the arpeggios and fragments of melody that pervade The Hebrides so aptly recall the wind, waves, and tides at the opening of the cave which inspired them.

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904), born in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), was a violist in the orchestra of the Prague National Theatre, before turning to composition 1870s.  Backed by Johannes Brahms and Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, and promoted by the likes of Theodore Thomas, founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Dvořák’s works fast became standards in the United States.  This country’s fiddle tunes, river songs and spirituals also served as inspiration for his well-known Symphony No. 9: “From the New World.”

Thomas gave Dvořák’s Scherzo Capriccioso (1883) its United States premiere in Brooklyn in 1884, programming it again for the inaugural concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891.  A favorite of audiences since its premiere, it served to establish Dvořák’s reputation, and is described by annotator Phillip Huscher as a work of “brilliance and panache, with a flair of rhythmic lilt and melodic charm.”

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) predicted the evolution of a universal art form (gesamtkunstwerk) which would unify all of the arts, with music being absorbed as part of the whole.  As a composer of “music drama,” as opposed to “opera,” he developed a continuously unfolding web of action echoed by the orchestra through a series of recurring musical themes called leitmotifs, each associated with certain characters, places, objects, and ideas.  Wagner’s art form, opposed by composers such as Verdi and Debussy, who denounced his style as stifling, overbearing, and typically Teutonic, did not enjoy great popularity, yet still remains as a testament to his artistic vision.

Wagner’s Parsifal (1882) is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s “Parzival,” a 13th-century epic poem about the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail;  its story was also influenced by “Percival le Galois; or Contes de Grail” by Chretien de Troyes (1190) and a 14th century manuscript called the “Mabinogion.”  Of the Prelude to Act I, Wagner wrote:  “My preludes must consist of the elements, and not be dramatic…or the drama becomes superfluous.”  The first idea he expresses is “Love,” symbolized by muted violins and cellos, with clarinet and bassoon.  Following the Grail theme, based on the traditional “Dresden Amen,” is the idea of “Faith,” whose “promise of redemption,” as Wagner called it, is voiced by the brass section.  The third idea is “Hope,” expressed in music that increases in optimism toward the Prelude’s conclusion.  “Will redemption heal the gnawing torments of the soul?,” wrote Wagner.  “Once more we hear the promise… and we hope.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) lived at a time when the cosmopolitan appeal of the classical music style was giving way to nationalism, inspired by the rediscovery of folk songs, folk dance, and national legends, by composers like Bohemia’s Dvořák, Spain’s de Falla, Great Britain’s Elgar, and Rimsky-Korsakov, one of Russia’s “The Five,” or “The Mighty Handful,” a group of Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries which also included Borodin, Moussorgsky, Cui and Balakirev.  Choosing not to incorporate elements of nationalism into his own music, Tchaikovsky’s was a more refined and classical outlook, his music representing not just Russian Romanticism, but the Romantic Era as a whole.

Unlike his ballets and symphonies, so full of Tchaikovsky’s trademark dramatic lyricism, the Overture solonnelle “1812,” Op. 49, was written “without any warm feelings of love.”  It was, in other words, a piece of uninspiring hack-work, written at the request of Nikolai Rubenstein for an Exhibition of Art and Commerce in Moscow in 1882.  Desperate for inspiration, Tchaikovsky noted the up-coming consecration of the Cathedral of the Redeemer, built to commemorate the events of 1812, when Russian armies repelled Napoleon’s advances on Moscow.  Annotator Richard Wigmore calls the 1812 Overture a “riot of patriotism” which includes a Russian liturgical theme and a folk tune, ending with a contest (war, actually) between “God Save the Tsar” and the “Marseillaise.”  Out of this contest, to the roar of a cannon, “Holy Mother Russia emerges unbowed.” 

- Michaelene Gorney

Bibliography:

Biographical sources:  Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., The Concise Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music, Schirmer Books, New York, New York, 1994;  Dom Michael Randel, The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 1996.

Maynard Solomon, Mozart, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, New York, 1995.

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, “The Magic Flute Overture,” notes unaccredited, http://m.kennedy-center.org/home/program/5201?_ga=1.51535081.1573597235.1454471661 .retrieved February 25, 2017.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Antonin Dvořák – Scherzo Capriccioso, notes by Phillip Huscher, http://cso.org/uploadedFiles/1_Tickets_and_Events/Program_Notes/ProgramNotes_Dvorak_Scherzo_capriccioso.pdf .

Stanley, Sadie, ed., The New Grove Book of Operas, St. Martin’s Press, New York, New York, 1996.

Monsalvat: The Parsifal Home Page, Music Introduction, Prelude to Act I, Program Notes by Derrick Everett, 1996-2015, http://www.monsalvat.no/prelact1.htm .

Brahms: A German Requiem and Wagner: Parsifal – Act I Prelude, notes unaccredited, The BBC Music Magazine Collection, Vol. 21, No 9, BBCMM358, 2013.

Richard Wagner: Orchestral Music from the Operas, notes unaccredited, BBC Philharmonic, Sir Edward Downes, Conductor, BBC MM257, 2005.

Tchaikovsky: Favorite Orchestra Works, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, Conductor, notes by Richard Wigmore, Deutsche Grammophon Masters, CD 445 523-2 1982.

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