|Bella and the Beast|
Overture to Semiramide
One of the most prolific opera composers of all time, Gioachino Rossini wrote nearly 40 operas, both serious and comic, by the time he was 37 – then quit. . For the rest of his long life he composed only sporadically and, except for church music, mostly small works he tossed off for the entertainment of his friends. He published over 150 musical miniatures in a collection that he called Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of old age).
Semiramide was one of Rossini’s ventures into opera seria. Written on commission for Venice’s famed Teatro la Fenice,it was his last opera for the Italian stage before moving to France. Based on Voltaire’s play Semiramis, it is an Oedipal tale about the Babylonian queen who connives with her lover to kill her husband but in turn falls in love with a young general, Arsace, who, unknown to Semiramide or himself, is actually her son Prince Nina. It ends with Arsace killing the guilty queen, condemning her lover to death and ascending the throne.
According to his contract, Rossini had 40 days to write the opera, but it took him only 33. The overture took him just a few hours, which is perhaps why it sounds so spontaneous and fresh. It is one of the few overtures Rossini wrote that actually “belongs” to the opera it precedes, not borrowed from some other one: in the long and slow introduction, four French horns intone a hymn-like passage from Act I, ) while the main body of the Overture begins with a theme from the introduction to the opera’s final scene.
Early in his career, Rossini had developed a template for overtures. All he had to do was come up with a half dozen tunes; stringing them together was virtually automatic. In addition to another major tune from the Overture, the composer finished it off with what later became known as “The Rossini Rocket,” in which a phrase is repeated several times, each time louder than the last and involving an increasing number of instruments. (Actually, Rossini did not invent the “rocket;” it was a device used in the pre-Classical symphonies of the famous Mannheim court orchestra during the last quarter of the eighteenth century.)
Johann Sebastian Bach
|Johann Sebastian Bach|
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048
The six Brandenburg Concerti stand at the crossroads in musical history, where chamber music and orchestral music went their separate ways. These Concerts á plusieurs instruments (Concerti for various instruments) as Bach named them, were dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, who employed a modest orchestra that was in all probability too small and inexpert to play all the Concertos. The Dedication Score, including an obsequious cover letter by Bach, has been preserved and is now in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. The mint condition of the manuscript indicates that in all probability the Margrave’s orchestra seldom if ever performed them.
Bach composed the Concertos between 1718 and 1721, although parts may have been written as early as 1708. They were not composed as an independent group, but rather assembled from various orchestral works Bach had already written over the years as courtly entertainment music on the highest level.
These same Concertos were probably common fare at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach's employer. Letters and records indicate that the personnel in the Cöthen orchestra corresponded closely to the instrumental requirements of the Concertos. Four of them, Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5, are true concerti grossi, requiring a solo instrument or group of instruments, requirements that correspond closely to better players in the prince’s orchestra.
The Concerto No. 3 is a true ensemble work, as if composed for a group of friends spending a musical evening together. In its original form it interweaves three groups of strings, each one consisting of a violin, a viola and a cello, playing in turn the concertino (small group of instruments), and coming together to play the ripieno (all together). In other words, all nine musicians share in the solo parts equally. A harpsichord and a violone (a very large viola da gamba) or double bass fill out the continuo. In the last movement the violone joins the three cellos in unison throughout.
The most unusual aspect of this concerto is the absence of a slow, middle movement. In its place is a one-bar time signature and two eighth-note chords only. Some scholars think that Bach intended for one or two of the soloists to improvise the slow movement, ending with a cadence on the chords he specifically notated. The dedication score in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek gives no clue whatsoever as to Bach’s intentions.
The outer movements are essentially the spinning out and free variations on a single theme. The first movement opens with all the players in the ritornello in unison, a device Bach picked up from Vivaldi. As we have come to expect, the episodes introduce new music interrupted by the ritornello until its final restatement of the ritornello at the end. Because of the significant amount of new music in the episodes, the movement roughly follows an ABA form.
The third movement is literally a grand chase, full of Bach’s characteristic canons, involving all the instruments. It certainly puts the lie to the stereotype that canons are stuffy.
Late in 1930, Willy Strecker, head of the prestigious German publishing house Schott & Sons and Igor Stravinsky’s new publisher, suggested that he write a violin concerto for Samuel Dushkin (1891-1976). The whole enterprise was to be financed by Dushkin’s patron, Blair Fairchild, himself a composer and pianist from a well-to-do family.
Stravinsky, suspicious of virtuosos and disliking empty showmanship, demurred, especially when Strecker suggested that Dushkin help him with the technical aspects of violin playing. But eventually he relented and agreed to meet Dushkin, with the result that the two became close friends. The Concerto became a cooperative enterprise, composer and violinist conferring closely on the fine points of technique and expression. As Dushkin wrote: “My function was to advise Stravinsky how his ideas could best be adapted to the exigencies of the violin as a concert display instrument.”
Stravinsky finished the Concerto in September 1931, and Dushkin premiered it a month later with the composer conducting the Berlin Radio Orchestra. At the head of the score, Stravinsky thanked the violinist profusely for his help. During the same period, he composed several more pieces for Dushkin, including an arrangement for violin and piano of selections from the ballet Pulcinella, entitled Suite italienne, and the Duo for Violin and Piano. Then, the two went on tour through Germany where they received enthusiastic reviews – ironically, on the eve of Hitler’s election as chancellor and the demise of musical modernism in Germany until after the war.
Stravinsky always insisted that, “Rhythm and motion, not the elements of feeling, are the foundations of musical art.” This philosophy is readily apparent in the Violin Concerto. The composer maintained that the Concerto was composed in homage to J. S. Bach, especially to the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043. Stravinsky’s debt to Bach is reflected in the last movement, where he inserted a duet between the soloist and a violinist from the orchestra. Opposed to violin virtuosity for its own sake, Stravinsky wrote no cadenza.
The Violin Concerto belongs to Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, which followed upon World War I and the long, fruitful early “Russian” period of the great ballets, The Firebird, The Rite of Spring and Petrushka. By contrast, Stravinsky’s neoclassicism returned to classical forms and literary themes (such as the opera Oedipus Rex and the ballet Apollo) upon which he superimposed his distinctly angular melodic and rhythmic signature.
The Concerto opens with a widely spaced triple-stopped chord (D-E-A) that Dushkin initially told the composer was impossible to play. Stravinsky called it “a passport to the music” and obviously prevailed; it is repeated throughout the work, most notably at the beginning of each subsequent movement.
The first movement, Toccata, is in classic sonata allegro form with a wide array of diverse themes and textures. The motivic elements that make up Stravinsky’s themes are, however, more elemental than one would imagine for even the eighteenth century: the first is a major third, starting in the middle (E), descending stepwise to D and finally ascending stepwise to F-sharp); the second theme is a simple A-major triad (A-C-sharp-E) filled in with its lower neighbors (A, G-sharp, C-sharp, C, E, D-sharp, E, A). The two themes are so basic that they can be played easily in counterpoint with each other (first with two flutes playing the first theme) although, of course, the composer proceeds to go “all over the map” with them.
Stravinsky gives the two middle movements the title “Aria,” recalling their Baroque antecedents in the da capo (ABA) arias that were de rigueur in both opera and Bach’s cantatas. In the first Aria a reference to Bach is apparent in its canonic counterpoint. in the second one, a poignant adagio theme and sinuous contrapuntal lines in the violin, take a backward look at Bach’s most emotive writing.
Likewise, the final movement, Capriccio, contains the spiky Stravinsky lines along with contrapuntal duets between the violin and orchestral soloists. Note that the “Passport chord” gets pretty short shrift as the violin stutters into a fugue with the flutes in distinctly Baroque harmony. The frequent changes in texture, melodic line and meter illustrate the aptness of the title of the movement.
Celestial Fantasy, Op. 44
A prolific American composer of Armenian descent, Alan Hovhaness Chakmakjian studied music at the New England Conservatory. He is best known for his orchestral composition And God Created Great Whales, in which a tape recording of the voices of humpback whales is used as a solo with the orchestra. The popularity of the work did much to curtail the hunting of these giant mammals.
In most of his works, Hovhaness made extensive use of indigenous Armenian melodies and modal scales. His style is described as “transcendental” or “religious.” After his explorations of Armenian folk music in the 1940s and ‘50s, he studied Indian ragas and Japanese and Korean music, incorporating these styles into his compositions as well. He viewed his own work in a spiritual light, writing: “Armenian music belongs to the ancient world when ragas, melody lines, and talas, rhythmic lines, were main pillars of universal music. When music was melody and rhythm, when each melodic combination was a gift of the gods, each rhythmic combination was a mantram to unlock a key of power in nature, then music was one of the mysteries of the elements, of the planetary systems, of the worlds, visible and invisible.”
Hovhaness composed the Celestial Fantasy for string orchestra in 1944, based on earlier work from 1935. He dedicated it to the poet and Saint Nerses Shnorhall, who led the Armenian Church early in the 12th century.
The work resembles as Bach prelude and fugue, beginning with a free-flowing melody in the low strings. A four-voice fugue, related modally to the initial melody follows in a faster tempo. Hovhaness reprises the two parts, now extended and varied to achieve an emotive climax.
Franz Joseph Haydn
|Franz Joseph Haydn|
Symphony No. 94 in G major, “Surprise”
The long life of Franz Joseph Haydn spanned one of the great upheavals in the economics of the musical profession. It marked the demise of the aristocratic “ownership” of music and musicians and the rise of the middle class as patrons, supporters and chief consumers of the arts. No one bridged this transition more effectively than Haydn, who spent most of his career as the valued erudite servant of an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat to become in his later years the darling of London's merchants – without offending either.
In early spring 1791, Haydn made the first of two extended trips to London at the invitation of the impresario Johann Peter Salomon and actually considered settling there for good. Salomon, violinist, conductor and concertmaster of his own orchestra, had been writing to Haydn for some time in an attempt to get him to come to London, but to no avail. When Haydn’s lifelong patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, died and the family disbanded the orchestra, the composer was suddenly a free agent. Capitalizing on the situation, Salomon personally went to Vienna to “fetch” Haydn with a princely lure of £1200, and Haydn bit. He composed numerous works for performance at Salomon’s concerts, primarily his last twelve symphonies (Nos. 93-104, known today as the “London” or “Salomon” symphonies). These performances, like most concerts of the time, went on for hours and were a mixed bag, including vocal, chamber and orchestral pieces. For the decade of the 1790s, their star attraction was Haydn’s music.
The Salomon concerts were so successful that a rival organization, the Professional Concerts, tried to seduce Haydn away from Salomon with even higher fees than he was already getting. Always a man of principle, Haydn refused, and the Professional Concerts hired his former student Ignace Pleyel to provide a new work for every concert, now openly suggesting that Haydn was past his prime anyway. But by 1793, the Professional Concerts had gone under, and the old man reigned supreme.
Haydn arrived for his first season in London armed with a number of new works, but his huge popularity demanded more and more from his pen. In the summer of 1791 he retreated to the countryside to compose; the Symphony No.94 was actually the fourth of the twelve to be finished. Premiered in March, 1792, it was a tremendous success, with one newspaper stating: “The second movement was the happiest of this great Master’s conceptions. The surprise might not be unaptly [sic] likened to the situation of a beautiful shepherdess who, lulled to slumber by the murmur of a distant waterfall, starts alarmed by the unexpected firing of a fowling-piece. The flute obbligato was delicious.”
The reference was to the second movement, Andante, a theme and four variations in which an unexpected fortissimo accompanied by the timpani interrupts the repeat of the first strain of the theme. The rumor, now legend, that Haydn had written in the famous chord to “wake up” the English audience – or one member thereof – who fell asleep at his concert became immediately so widespread that Haydn himself had to refute it. Instead, he claimed that he had wanted to make a grand statement to ensure that his concerts would outshine those of his student Pleyel, whose rival series had opened the previous week. It is clear, however, that Haydn was speaking tongue-in-cheek, as he maintained a close friendship with Pleyel while the two were ostensibly slugging it out.
But there are more surprises than that single fortissimo outburst. The Symphony begins with Haydn's customary slow introduction. For the Allegro, Haydn resorted to one of the clever little touches that kept his music so fresh. The movement is written in sonata form but with only one true theme, rather than the usual two. The whole exposition is built on the melodic ideas within the single theme. Although in most hands, the result would have been monotonous indeed, Haydn spins out every fragment of the melody, using surprising key changes and transitions.
The Andante theme and variations packs more than one surprise. While the first variation goes without a hitch, the second goes off on a musical tangent, beginning in the minor and suddenly changing key. The third variation is business as usual, featuring flute and oboe solos. Variation 4, however, once again goes off the rails upon the repeat of the second strain into a little development/coda. For twenty-first century listeners, this kind of diversion seems trivial, but if we listen with the ears of Haydn's audience, we understand their delight at having their expectations thwarted.
Haydn's minuets were always the least bit clunky – more like the peasant Ländler than a court dance. With the help of the timpani, No. 94's is particularly so. The little Trio is probably the weakest part of the Symphony, in not providing significant contrast either in melody or instrumentation.
The Finale is another sonata form, a flexible structure that Haydn was partial to. After stating the rondo theme, Haydn takes his time getting to the second one using the typical episodic structure of the rondo. There is a significant development before the return to the rondo theme. The surprise in this movement is the long coda, which, with its surprising key changes is more like another development section.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017|