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Explore the Music

Our program book features an extensive history and explanation of each piece of music we present at our concerts. 

The Carmel Symphony Orchestra program notes are written and copyrighted by Daniel Powers.

Click the links below to jump to each program:

 

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Susie Park

Rachmaninoff 3 with Sean Chen

Angela Brown! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Susie Park

Danzón No. 2 (1994)
Arturo Márquez (born 1950)

Before Arturo Márquez began his series of Danzónes in the 1990s, Mexican dance hall music had been the inspiration behind at least one other major concert work. During a visit to Mexico City in the early 1930s, Aaron Copland was invited to visit a dance club called El Salon México; he was fascinated by the music he heard there. On returning to the US, he began working on an orchestral overture incorporating several traditional Mexican melodies, which he titled after the name of the dance club. El Salon México became one of his most popular works, but it is, as Copland himself acknowledged, the work of a musical tourist, observing Mexican musical culture from the point of view of an outsider. Márquez approached the task as an insider, steeped in the traditional music of Mexico from birth.

Márquez was born in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, where his father, also named Arturo, was a mariachi musician who gave his son his first music lessons. His grandfather had also been a musician in the folk traditions. The family relocated to the Los Angeles area in 1962, where the young Arturo continued his musical education in the public school system, learning violin, trombone, and piano, and began composing in High School. “My adolescence,” he related, “was spent listening to Javier Solis [a popular Mexican singer and actor], mariachi, the Doors, the Beatles, Carlos Santana, and Chopin.” At 17, he returned to Sonora, worked as a band director for a while, and then began studying at the Mexican Conservatory. Later he studied in Paris, until a Fulbright Scholarship brought him back to California to work toward a Master’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts.

Márquez has written music for film, dance, and concert hall, but until fairly recently, his music was not well known outside of Mexico. That began to change after a trip to Malinalco, south of Mexico City, in the company of painter Andrés Fonseca and dancer Irene Martínez. Later Márquez recalled that his companions were “experts in salon dances with a special passion for the danzón, which they were able to transmit to me from the beginning, and also during later trips to Veracruz and visits to the Colonia Salon in Mexico City.” As had happened with Copland six decades earlier, the vigorous rhythms and sinuous melodies of the Mexican dance hall fired Márquez’s imagination, resulting in not just one, but eight (so far) concert works for various ensembles, but mostly for orchestra.

Danzón No. 2 was commissioned by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico in 1994, and has become by far his most popular work. It began to attract international attention in 2007 when it was featured during the European and North American tour of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, where, in the words of a Los Angeles critic, it routinely “brought down the house.”

Márquez provided the following program note:

 The danzón is a Cuban dance that became very popular in Mexico during the first half of the twentieth century, especially in the state of Veracruz and Mexico City. Because it was developed in a very special way in our country, many of us Mexicans consider it our own national music… Danzón No. 2, rather than dealing directly with the form and harmony of the classical danzon, pays tribute to the tradition and its people. I decided to start with a slow, sensuous theme instead of the usual introduction. After that, a rhythmical section continues the elaboration of these materials. The work is dedicated to my daughter Lily.

 

Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1812)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Composed mainly in early 1812, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony was not premiered until December 1813. By then, it had been five years since the premieres of the 5th and 6th Symphonies (on the same concert in December 1808), and the public eagerly anticipated the new work. As it turned out, the new symphony was nearly upstaged by a different work.

Before the premier there was a benefit concert for Austrian soldiers who had been wounded in the Napoleonic wars. An orchestra was assembled which included many of the best-known composers of the day. Louis Spohr played in the violin section, Dragonetti in the basses. The percussion section included such luminaries as Hummel, Moscheles, Meyerbeer, and Beethoven’s old teacher Salieri. To underscore the purpose of the benefit concert, Beethoven contributed a work known as the “Battle Symphony” or “Wellington’s Victory,” a programmatic work depicting Napoleon’s defeat in Spain earlier that year. This work is now regarded as among Beethoven’s worst compositions; however, the cause was popular, and program music was just beginning to come into its own, and “Wellington’s Victory” was the hit of the evening.

Perhaps the presence of an overtly programmatic work on the program, coupled with the fact that Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (Pastoral) was itself programmatic, led listeners to expect some sort of similarly narrative element to the 7th Symphony. Beethoven offered none, but that didn’t prevent a number of people from coming up with their own. One scenario was offered saying that the symphony depicted a revolution; another a chivalric romance. A later theory was that the symphony was based on a Goethe novel. Robert Schumann (possibly tongue in cheek) suggested an elaborate plotline about a country wedding, with the music supposedly depicting such details as the bride’s demeanor and the priest’s sermon. While none of these are taken seriously any more, a comment by Richard Wagner continues to have staying power. In 1849, Wagner wrote, “this symphony is the apotheosis of the dance herself: it is dance in her highest aspect, as it were the loftiest deed of bodily motion incorporated in an ideal mould of tone.”

Certainly the symphony overflows with rhythmic energy (at least in three of its movements), making a comparison to dance music appropriate and perhaps inevitable. After an unusually long introduction, the main section of the first movement is based on a skipping rhythmic cell, heard at the outset in the flute and oboe. The jaunty tune which follows ushers in a long movement in which the rhythmic drive never stops despite numerous changes of mood.

By contrast, the second movement is deeply serious. The theme heard at the outset, mostly focuses on a repeated E, and seems to be devoid of any melodic interest, but that perception is soon put to rest as the real first theme is heard in counterpoint to the monotonous one. This movement proved so popular that it had to be repeated at the first performance, and soon was showing up in unexpected places, often inserted into other Beethoven symphonies in place of their own slow movements.

Fast, driving rhythm returns in the third movement, a scherzo. The tempo unexpectedly slows in the trio section, reportedly based on an Austrian pilgrim’s hymn. 

While the adjective whirlwind seems overused in connection with the Finale, it is difficult to avoid. Sir Donald Tovey described the movement as a “triumph of Bacchic fury.” The dynamic motion is unrelenting with climax piled on climax, and all enclosed within a classical sonata form. 

 

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 (1878)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Even though Tchaikovsky could not be considered a particularly radical composer, he suffered terrible abuse at the hands of the conservative music press throughout his life. Following the premiere of his Violin Concerto in 1881, Tchaikovsky was treated to this comment from the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick:

For a while the Concerto has proportion, is musical, and is not without genius, but soon savagery gains the upper hand and lords it to the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played: it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue…We see wild and vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell bad brandy.  Freidrich Fischer once asserted in reference to lascivious paintings that there are pictures that ‘stink in the eye.’  Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto brings to us for the first time the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks in the ear.

Tchaikovsky, always overly sensitive to criticism, remained bitter to his concerto’s harsh reception to the end of his life. The work was very dear to him, perhaps because it was written as he was emerging from a terribly dark period in his life.

In 1877, Tchaikovsky made the decision to marry Antonina Milyukova, an unbalanced music student who had become obsessed with him to the point that she threatened suicide if he could not return her feelings. It seems that Tchaikovsky’s decision was based on nothing more than a desire to quell the persistent—and wholly justified—rumors of his homosexuality. Not surprisingly, the marriage was an utter disaster, imploding after only a few months, and precipitating Tchaikovsky’s own emotional collapse. He left Russia that fall, eventually arriving in Switzerland to spend several months recuperating.

By early spring, Tchaikovsky had recovered enough to begin composing again. The first mention of a Violin Concerto comes in a letter dated March 19, 1878, written to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. “For the first time in my life,” he wrote, “I have begun to work on a new piece before finishing the one at hand. I could not resist the pleasure of sketching out the concerto, and allowed myself to be so carried away that the sonata [Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 37] has been set aside.” Once begun, the concerto proceeded with astonishing speed. A sketch of the score was complete in only 11 days, and by April 20 the orchestral score had been completed. However, he soon became dissatisfied with the slow movement, and on April 29 wrote that he had discarded it and written a completely new one. (The original slow movement was later published as part of a suite for violin and piano, Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op. 47.)

The concerto’s critical troubles began almost immediately. Tchaikovsky had dedicated it to the great Hungarian violinist and teacher Leopold Auer, only to suffer the humiliation of Auer rejecting the dedication, declaring the work “unplayable.” The concerto had to wait almost four years before its premiere in Vienna by Adolf Brodsky to whom Tchaikovsky re-dedicated the concerto. The performance was met by a wild commotion in the hall, with demonstrations both supporting and denouncing the new work. Of the ten reviews that appeared the next day, only two were even moderately favorable. Most reviews were as harsh as Hanslick’s with one reviewer quipping that it was not so much a concerto for the violin as against it.

Fortunately, it did not take long for the tide of opinion to change, and soon the concerto became a staple of virtuoso violinists all over the world. Even Auer changed his mind about it, not only performing it himself, but also teaching it to many of his students, including Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. By the end of the century, Tchaikovsky’s concerto took its place with the concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, as the most popular in the repertory.

The concerto begins with an orchestral introduction, after which the violin enters with two broad, lyrical themes in succession. The development weaves both themes with virtuosic passages and orchestral punctuations. A written cadenza leads to the recapitulation and a brilliant coda.

The second movement is titled Canzonetta.  As the title implies, the movement is very lyrical and song-like, somewhat somber and wistful. Without warning or pause, the second movement leads into the Finale, a virtuosic barn-burner if there ever was one. Replete with withering runs, leaps, and double stops, the movement is a Trepak (a lively Russian dance) in rondo form.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rachmaninoff 3 with Sean Chen

Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, Op. 11 (1901)
George Enescu (1881-1955)

Romanian violinist and composer, George Enescu was a child prodigy.  He entered the Vienna Conservatory at age seven and graduated at age twelve with a silver medal. After further study in Paris, he began a career as a violinist and chamber musician in Europe. Later he began a second career as a conductor in the United States. He died in Paris in 1955.

There are only 33 published works by Enescu. His busy career as a performer is often blamed, but his relentless perfectionism is probably the real reason. All of his published works were repeatedly revised before publication, and in many cases revision continued even after publication. Recent research suggests that there may be hundreds of compositions in manuscript that Enescu simply could not polish to the high standards of perfection he demanded for publication. Enescu reflected on his music, “People have been puzzled and annoyed because they have been unable to catalogue and classify me in the usual way. They could not decide exactly what type of music mine was. It was not French after the manner of Debussy, it was not exactly German…people are annoyed when they cannot readily classify one.”

The fact that Enescu made use of Romanian folk idioms in his earlier works would tend to classify him as a nationalist; however, shortly after the publication of his two Romanian Rhapsodies, he began to move away from the overt use of folk materials. He disliked the limitations it placed on his creativity. He came to bitterly resent the popularity of the Rhapsodies and the way they dominated his reputation. Unfortunately for Enescu’s reputation, the Rhapsodies, dominated by brilliant, virtuosic writing for the violin sections, remain as popular today as ever. 

 

Prelude to the Afternoon Of A Faun, L. 86, (1894)
(Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune)
Claude-Achille Debussy (1862-1918)

At first glance, to describe this tone poem by Debussy as “revolutionary” might seem to be mere hyperbole. Seen in the context of its time, the term seems less inappropriate. During the same period, Mahler was making a stir with his first three symphonies, each one longer, larger, and louder than the last; and Richard Strauss was transitioning from his conservative roots to the brash, colorful, hyper-expressive style of his middle period. Both composers are seen as the epitome of Post-Romanticism, the dominant movement of the time. 

Compared to these composers, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun seems quite tame; quietly sensual rather than emotional, brief rather than monumental, delicate rather than brash. And yet, at the December 1894 premiere, all who heard it were aware that something new and unprecedented had been brought into the world. Gustave Doret, who conducted the performance, recalled the event almost fifty years later; “There was a vast silence in the hall as I ascended to the podium and our splendid flutist, Georges Barrère, unfolded his opening line. All at once I felt behind me, as some conductors can, an audience that was totally spellbound. It was a complete triumph, and I had no hesitation in breaking the rule forbidding encores.”

As a young man, Debussy had attracted favorable attention with several works, mainly songs and piano pieces, influenced by Wagner. But by the late 1880s, events took place which began the process of drawing him in a different direction. One was the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris where Debussy experienced the music of the Orient for the first time, placing new sounds and new ideas into his musical thought process. 

Perhaps more decisive was his friendship with the poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). As a poet, Mallarmé was one of the leaders of the Symbolist movement, which largely abandoned narrative and description in favor of creating fleeting impressions evoking a dreamlike state. Published in 1876, after going through three revisions over an eleven-year period, The Afternoon of a Faun is one of his most well-known poems. The poem concerns the thoughts of a faun (the libido driven half man, half goat creature from Greek myth). Drowsy in the heat of a late summer afternoon, the faun is filled with the memories of his past amorous adventures, though whether these are true memories or merely dreams deliberately is left unclear.

From time to time, Mallarmé expressed the idea that his poem should be staged, set to music and sung “like a little opera.” Perhaps this idea attracted Debussy initially, but ultimately he went in an entirely different direction, composing instead “a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem.” Going further, he explained that he did not set out to create a “synthesis” of the poem, but rather to depict the state of mind of the half-asleep faun as dreams and memories fleetingly pass through his consciousness before he finally succumbs to “intoxicating sleep.”

To depict the faun’s dreamlike state, Debussy largely abandoned traditional ideas about form and development. Instead, Faun consists of a series of ideas heard one after the other with little in the way of transition; some of the ideas recur during the course of the composition, others materialize briefly and dissolve. Furthermore, Debussy adopted a radical, at least for its time, approach to tonality. Though the work is by no means atonal, as we have come to understand the word, it is sometimes difficult to determine precisely what key it is in. Even though it begins with a key signature of E major, we hear no hint of E major until over two minutes have passed. Until then, we are adrift in a sea of coloristic harmonies which hint at, but never really resolve, into any particular key, nor does E major linger for long. No sooner has it arrived then it too dissipates.

Also notable is Debussy’s masterful use of instrumental color. His ensemble is not large, but is deployed with a master’s touch, full of delicate nuances and subtle shadings. The opening seems to have barely any substance at all, with an unaccompanied flute answered by a cool splash of color from horns and harps, then a full silence. The flute solo returns, now overlaid by a transparent wash of tremolo strings, then yet again with delicate figuration from the harps. The clarinet introduces a more scurrying figure, disappearing into a warm, lyrical line in the oboe. In time, things settle down, and we hear the only fully developed melody in the piece, introduced by woodwinds, and completed by the strings. The final section begins with another statement of the opening flute solo, accompanied again with tremolo strings, and the softly chiming sound of tiny antique cymbals, before the piece seems to fade into thin air like a summer daydream.

Short as it is, the Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun took Debussy almost two years to complete, and once it went into rehearsal he began introducing revisions to the score right up to the day of the premiere. The effort paid off. Despite leaving more than one critic baffled, not only was the piece was an immediate success but its influence has been lasting and far-reaching. No less an arch-modernist than Pierre Boulez, in a 1953 essay, maintained that for him, modern music began with this score. “The flute of the Faun,” he wrote, “brought new breath to the art of music…the reservoir of youth in that score defies depletion and exhaustion.”

 

Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899/1900)
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Sibelius was born during a time of political and cultural upheaval for the Finnish people. From the mid-13th century Finland was fully a part of the kingdom of Sweden, until 1809 when the Russian Empire under Alexander I seized and annexed the area. After centuries of domination by alien cultures, the Finnish language and culture were slowly disappearing, until a nationalist movement began to grow in the 1860s.

The Sibelius family was part of the Swedish-speaking cultural elite of Finland, but when the young Jean was nine he was sent to a new school, the first of its kind, where lessons were taught in Finnish. It was here that Sibelius first encountered the Kalevala and Kanteletar, two of the first collections of Finnish folk poetry. These two volumes provided inspiration for many of his earliest compositions. Despite his enthusiasm for the Finnish language, however, throughout his life, his principal tongue remained Swedish. 

The 1890s was a period of rising tension between the Finnish people and their Russian political masters. While Finland was nominally an autonomous Duchy within Russia, in practice this meant little since Russia could and did ignore any measures passed by the Finnish parliament. Early in 1899, Czar Nicholas II took the step of declaring complete Russian sovereignty over Finland, stripping the Finnish government of all but symbolic power, and imposing heavy censorship of the press.

In November of that year, an artistic response was surreptitiously staged. Officially billed as a concert to raise money for a Press Pension Fund, in reality it was a political event designed to rouse patriotic fervor by presenting a series of staged tableaux depicting glorious events from Finnish history and legend. Sibelius was engaged to provide music for the event, writing an instrumental prelude and several interludes connecting the tableaux. The program ended with a rousing orchestral work, Finland Awakes!, featuring a big hymn-like tune which is both eminently singable and impossible to forget. The work was a sensation, and people left the performance humming the tune.

Shortly afterward, Sibelius revised Finland Awakes as an independent concert piece, in the process changing the title to Finlandia. The work took off, appearing on programs throughout Finland, and eventually Europe and the rest of the world. In this form, the work’s origins as a political protest were less obvious, but the Russian authorities figured it out and responded by ordering the work suppressed, which of course didn’t work; the tune was just too memorable, and once people started adding words to it and singing it in the street, it became impossible to regulate.

The popularity of Finlandia seems to have taken Sibelius by surprise. At the time he wrote it, he considered it a mere occasional piece, written to be played at a specific event, and then forgotten, which was the fate of all the rest of his music for the event. In time, he came to react rather grumpily whenever the work was performed, resentful of the fact that this work, which he considered relatively insignificant, tended to overshadow all his more important compositions. But, however much Finlandia may have failed to meet his own high standards, it helped unite a people and eventually forge a nation. When Finland finally achieved independence from Russia in 1917, Sibelius was hailed as a national hero, and his most famous melody continues to lie at the core of the Finnish people’s national identity to this day.

 

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909)
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Rachmaninoff is remembered as one of the greatest pianists of all time, and the last great composer in the Russian romantic tradition. Born to a wealthy, music-loving family, young Sergei received his first piano lessons from his mother. His musical training was completed at the Moscow Conservatory, where he received the encouragement of Tchaikovsky, and took the Conservatory’s gold medal in composition for his opera Aleko. Rachmaninoff seemed poised for a golden future, but his fortunes were abruptly shattered by the dismal reception of his First Symphony in 1895. The hostile reaction toward this piece sent the composer into a deep creative depression lasting five years. During this time, he composed nothing. With the aid of hypnosis, he recovered and completed his Second Piano Concerto in 1901. This concerto was a great success with both public and press, and Rachmaninoff’s future as composer and pianist was assured.

Expectations must have been high for the completion of a third concerto, but it was a long wait.  The third concerto wasn’t completed until 1909. Rachmaninoff intended to make the new concerto the centerpiece of his first American tour. For a time, the tour itself seemed uncertain, with contractual negotiations continuing almost until the last minute. But despite the uncertainty, Rachmaninoff worked steadily and secretly on the new concerto at his family’s estate near Moscow. It was completed on September 23, only nine days before he set sail for New York. On board ship, he practiced the difficult solo part using a silent keyboard.

The Third Concerto was premiered with the New York Symphony Orchestra on November 28, conducted by Walter Damrosch. The following January New York heard the concerto again, this time at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Gustav Mahler. Critical reception was mixed, with one reviewer commenting, “Its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.”

For decades the Third Concerto lived in the shadow of the more compact, more tuneful Second. It must be said that, to some extent, Rachmaninoff sabotaged his own concerto by making several ill-advised cuts, especially in the third movement. His aim was understandable. By shortening the work, he hoped to make it more programmable. Ultimately, though, the cuts diminished the work’s impact, and today the concerto is almost always performed without cuts.

For pianists today, the “Rach Three” is considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos. The piano writing is among the most difficult and brilliant ever conceived, making it a popular choice among virtuoso pianists seeking to display their abilities. 

But the concerto is no mere empty display vehicle. Though, to may, its melodies maybe less memorable than the second, the third is more deeply expressive and structurally original. The first movement grows from a deceptively simple melody from which new ideas continually evolve. The second theme is presented in two sections, the first rhythmic, followed by a lyrical variation. An extended and dramatic development section leads to the cadenza, which turns out to be one of the concerto’s greatest innovations. Traditionally, the cadenza was essentially superfluous, serving no purpose but to give the soloist a chance to display his virtuosity unencumbered by the orchestra. In the Third Concerto, Rachmaninoff makes his cadenza serve a structural function by presenting both themes in succession; the cadenza is tightly integrated into the fabric of the movement, acting as a recapitulation, which normally would have been presented by the soloist with the orchestra.

The second movement is also formally unique, folding a brief scherzo-like section into an otherwise traditional slow movement. Another brief cadenza leads without pause into the third movement, which opens with a rhythmically buoyant theme. A chordal passage follows. Though not as memorable as the first theme, it evolves into the grand romantic theme of the movement’s coda. The middle section of the movement offers a complete change of mood, and recalls themes from the first two movements (this was once the most heavily cut section of the concerto). Following a recapitulation and a suspenseful crescendo, the chordal theme makes a final triumphant appearance, and the concerto closes with a brilliant coda.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Brown!

Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1861-1867)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Throughout much of the 19th century, German music was dominated by a war of words between two opposing camps.  On one side were the “neo-classicists” who championed formal clarity over emotional expression.  On the other side were the so-called “New German School” who felt that form must be subject to inspiration, and favored an expansion of traditional harmonic language. By the 1860s, both camps had found their respective champions in Brahms and Wagner. It must be said that Brahms did little in the way of direct participation in the debate and in fact counted himself as an admirer of Wagner. It fell to the Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick to become the most prominent voice of the neo-classical side of the debate.

Wagner was more than willing to speak for himself, and in fact, he did so in a number of lengthy essays. However, his best-known sally in the ongoing debate was certainly his music drama Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, first performed in 1868. Though billed as Wagner’s only comic opera (at least comic in a long-winded Wagnerian sense), Die Meistersinger can also be seen as an artistic manifesto. The plot concerns a song contest sponsored by the guild of Mastersingers in 16th century Nuremburg. The contest boils down to a struggle between two contestants, the newcomer Walther von Stolzing, and the narrow-minded Sextus Beckmesser. The latter’s song follows all the traditional rules laid down by the Mastersingers, and yet it is clearly inferior to Walter’s “Prize Song,” which boldly breaks them.

It is almost universally assumed that the character Beckmesser is a thinly disguised caricature of Hanslick. However, this assumption may be untrue or, at the least, wildly exaggerated. For one thing, Wagner had written a draft of the libretto as early as 1845 when Hanslick was unknown to him. For another, relations between the two men were friendly at first, before collapsing under the weight of their respective ideologies. The story may have been inadvertently begun by Wagner, who reported an incident at a reading of his libretto in 1862, while the opera was still in progress. By his account, Wagner believed that Hanslick was in some discomfort at the reading, and several of Wagner’s friends who were present got the impression that Hanslick saw the libretto as a personal attack. However, we have only Wagner’s word on this.  The story has not been corroborated, even by Hanslick.

The Prelude to the opera was finished long before the opera itself, and was first performed in 1862. In its broad outlines, the prelude resembles a traditional sonata form. The music begins with two themes associated with the Mastersinger’s guild. The first is a stately procession of the guildsmen, followed by the fanfare associated with the presentation of the guild’s banner. As the key changes, the violins present the third theme, a prototype version of Walther’s “Prize Song.” The development that follows includes a humorous passage in which the Mastersinger’s processional theme is presented by the winds in a mock-scholastic contrapuntal style, twice interrupted by the romantic Prize Song motive in the strings. Instead of a conventional recapitulation, in which the three main themes are played one after the other, Wagner does something totally new and presents all three themes simultaneously. The prelude concludes with a glorious affirmation of the Mastersinger themes.

 

From La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) (1869)
Overture and “Pace, pace mio dio”
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

At the age of 46, Verdi had already enjoyed one of the most successful careers in operatic history. Following the premiere of Un Ballo in maschera, his 23rd opera in 20 years, he appeared ready to retire to his estate in Sant’ Agata and “forget everything he knew about music.” And, for two years, he appeared to do just that.

In 1861, two letters arrived from St. Petersburg, one from the tenor Enrico Tamberlick, and the other addressed to Signora Verdi from her old friend Mauro Corticelli. The gist of both letters was to sound out Verdi on the possibility of writing an opera for the Imperial Russian Theater. This was Verdi’s first foreign commission in 25 years, and despite some initial reluctance, he soon responded with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, his first proposal was for an opera based on Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, a controversial play about a Spanish slave who dares fall in love with the Queen. Verdi was a veteran of several head-butting contests with the Italian censors, so it must not have come as too great a surprise when the Russian censor responded with an emphatic “nyet” to his idea.

Verdi came back with a second proposal, on a different Spanish play, Don Alvaro by Angel Perez de Saadeva, Duke of Rivas. This play did not lack in controversial elements either; however, it must have been more to the taste of the Russian authorities because it was approved. 

The opera, renamed La Forza del destino, was to have been premiered in December 1861, but was delayed until the following November when the prima donna fell gravely ill and could not be replaced. A superstition has arisen that the opera itself is cursed and brings bad luck to its performers. In 1960, the curse manifested itself at the Metropolitan Opera, when the baritone Leonard Warren, about to begin his Act III aria “Morir, tremenda cosa” (“To die, a momentous thing”) suddenly had a heart attack and died onstage.

The plot is fairly gruesome, even by the standards of Italian opera A bizarre tangle of doomed love, familial vendetta, mistaken identity, and misunderstood intentions, finally ending with nearly every character killed by various means. “We’ve got to find some way to avoid all these dead bodies,” Verdi wrote to his librettist. Over the next seven years the opera was worked over several times. By the final version, in 1869, the plot had been streamlined, and a few, but not many, of the dead bodies were removed.

Verdi’s revisions were not confined to the opera itself. The overture received a thorough makeover for the final version, being extended to nearly twice its original length, and introducing themes associated with most of the major characters.

The overture begins with three emphatic notes, a kind of “fate motive” which reappears at several key points in the overture and opera. The restless theme that follows is associated with a curse supposedly put on the heroine, Leonora, in the cradle. Later in the overture, we hear an arching theme taken from Leonora’s Act II aria in which she calls on God not to abandon her; however, the “curse” theme is ominously repeated in an undercurrent to her prayer. The overture ends in a festive mood, but the bass instruments remind us that the hand of fate is still present.

The aria “Pace, pace mio dio” (“Peace, peace O God”) is heard as the opera is nearing its conclusion. It is sung by Leonora, whose forbidden love for Alvaro had set the plot in motion. In the opera’s final scene, Leonora has lived as a religious hermit in an isolated cave for many years. Though she believes Alvaro to be dead (Spoiler Alert: he isn’t but soon will be), she cannot erase her love for him from her heart, and prays for God to end her suffering through death. As the aria ends, she hears someone approaching, and calls down a curse on him for violating her solitude. 

Pace, pace, mio Dio! 
Cruda sventura 
M’astringe, ahimè, a languir; 
Come il di primo 
Da tant’anni dura 
Profondo il mio soffrir. 
L’amai, gli è ver! 
Ma di beltà e valore 
Cotanto Iddio l’ornò. 
Che l’amo ancor. 
Nè togliermi dal core 
L’immagin sua saprò. 
Fatalità! Fatalità! Fatalità! 
Un delitto disgiunti n’ha quaggiù! 
Alvaro, io t’amo. 
E su nel cielo è scritto: 
Non ti vedrò mai più! 
Oh Dio, Dio, fa ch’io muoia; 
Che la calma può darmi morte sol. 
Invan la pace qui sperò quest’alma 
In preda a tanto duol. 
Misero pane, a prolungarmi vieni 
La sconsolata vita . . . Ma chi giunge? 
Chi profanare ardisce il sacro loco? 
Maledizione! Maledizione! Maledizione!

 

(English translation)

Peace, peace, O God!
Cruel misfortune
compels me, alas, to languish;
my suffering has lasted 

for so many years,
as profound as on the first day.
I loved him, it is true! 

But God had blessed him
with such beauty and courage
that I love him still, 

and cannot efface his image
from my heart.
Fatal destiny! A crime
has divided us down here!
Alvaro, I love you 

and in heaven above it is written
that I shall never see you again!
O God, God, let me die, for only death
can bring me peace.
In vain this soul of mine here sought peace,
a prey to so much woe.
Wretched bread, you come to prolong
my inconsolable life. - But who comes here,
daring to profane this sacred retreat?
A curse! A curse!

 

Triumphal March from Aida (1871)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

It is not true, though it is sometimes reported, that Verdi was commissioned to write Aida to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Actually, the Khedive of Egypt, Isma’il Pasha, approached Verdi with a proposal to writing a symphonic hymn for the event, but Verdi declined, saying he did not compose “occasional pieces.” The Khedive chose not to press the issue, but a year later he contacted Verdi again, this time with the idea of commissioning an opera to inaugurate the new Khedival Opera House in Cairo. Though initially reluctant, Verdi was more receptive to this idea and eventually accepted.  After all, opera was what he did best.

For an opera to be premiered in Egypt, it seemed natural to fashion a plot set in the country’s storied past. Verdi was presented with a scenario by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, which was the basis of a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. The plot is one of doomed love and conflicting loyalties. Aida, the title character, is a slave to the Egyptian princess Amneris, and is later revealed to be the daughter of the Ethiopian General whose armies currently threaten Egypt. Radames, Captain of the Egyptian Guard, is given the task of defending Egypt against the invading armies. To complicate his task, he is in love with Aida. Amneris, however, is also in love with Radames, and when she finds out that her own slave is her romantic rival, she plots revenge. Naturally, things end badly for all concerned.

The Triumphal March is the centerpiece of Act II, as the people of Egypt welcome the victorious Radames and his army, and watch as Ethiopian captives are paraded before them. This sequence has traditionally been the occasion for the most spectacular staging that an opera house can manage, involving multiple choruses, onstage bands, a large ballet corps, and sometimes trained horses (the premiere in Cairo reportedly used elephants).

Early Egyptian music remains largely a mystery, but a few things are known, including the fact that they used natural (valveless) trumpets. Verdi was aware of this, and had two sets of natural trumpets built to his specifications hoping to mimic the sound of the ancient instruments. (Needless to say, modern trumpets are more likely to be used.) In 1925, a pair of trumpets was uncovered among the artifacts in King Tutankhamen’s tomb, which turned out to be tuned to A flat and B—the same keys Verdi had called for over half a century earlier.

 

Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

While still a student at the Milan Conservatory, Puccini had a reputation as a promising young composer; however, the failure of his first two operas placed his future in doubt. These failures made his choice of dramatic material for his third opera seem ill-advised. Manon Lescaut, the 1731 novel by the Abbé Prévost, had already been adapted into two operas. The second of these, by Jules Massenet, appeared less than ten years previously and was a great success. Puccini’s publisher and friend Ricordi tried to dissuade him from his plans, but the composer would not listen. “Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon?” he asked. “A woman like Manon can have more than one lover. Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.” His instincts proved correct. His operatic treatment of Manon Lescaut was premiered on February 1, 1893 and was an unqualified success – his first of many.

The story of Manon is part tragic love story and part moralistic drama. Manon was a beautiful young woman from a wealthy family, but her father decided she should be a nun. However, while she is traveling to the convent, she is seen by a young man, the Chevalier des Grieux, who instantly falls in love with her and persuades her to leave with him. In Paris, the lovers live together in luxury, but when des Grieux’s money runs out, she leaves him for Geronte, an older and richer man because she fears living in poverty. Later, when she and des Grieux meet again, she realizes that she still loves him. She is caught stealing jewelry from Geronte and is sentenced to exile in Louisiana. In the final scene, she and des Grieux are fleeing New Orleans in hopes of finding sanctuary in a British settlement. When Manon collapses, des Grieux leaves her to search for water but is unsuccessful, returning just in time to hear her last words, a declaration of her love for him, just before she dies, exhausted.

The Intermezzo is an instrumental movement, appearing in the published score at the beginning of Act III, which takes place in Manon’s prison cell. But, since Acts III and IV are relatively short compared to the first two, they are sometimes performed without intermission.  In this case the Intermezzo serves as a transition between the two acts.

 

“Vissi d’arte” from Tosca (1899)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Tosca, Puccini’s fifth opera, was based on an historical melodrama written in 1887 by the French playwright Victorien Sardou. After seeing the play twice, Puccini wrote to his publishe,r Ricordi, begging him to negotiate with Sardou for the rights to adapt it into an opera. Sardou finally agreed, but it took much persuasion. Unfortunately, Sardou let slip that he did not care for Puccini’s music.  Puccini took offence and withdrew from the agreement. The rights were transferred to another Ricordi composer, Alberto Franchetti, but that fell through when Franchetti also asked to be released from the contract. Apparently he felt that Puccini would be better suited to the lurid plot, which involved scenes of graphic torture, murder, and suicide. By then, however, Puccini had changed his mind, and the opera was back on track.

The premiere of the opera was scheduled to take place in Rome on January 13, 1900. It was a time of political and social unrest in Italy, and the premiere had to be postponed for a day because of a terrorist threat. When the performance began, it had to be stopped after a few minutes because of a disturbance in the theater.  However, the commotion turned out to be only the noise of latecomers attempting to force their way in, so the opera resumed and proceeded without further incident. It was only moderately successful at first but quickly gained popularity.

“Vissi d’arte” (I lived for art) is an aria for the title character from Act II. Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi has been arrested for treason by the sadistic Scarpia. Tosca arrives on the scene just in time to see Cavaradossi dragged away to be tortured and executed. When Tosca pleads for her lover’s life, Scarpia replies that he will release Cavaradossi only if she yields herself to him. The aria is her response, in which she sings of her desire only to live a blameless life, and to wonder why God has forsaken her in her darkest hour. After the aria concludes, she assents to Scarpia’s advances, but when he comes forward to embrace her, she stabs him to death with a knife from his own table.

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
non feci mai male ad anima viva!
Con man furtiva
quante miserie conobbi aiutai.
Sempre con fè sincera
la mia preghiera
ai santi tabernacoli salì.
Sempre con fè sincera
diedi fiori agl’altar.
Nell’ora del dolore
perchè, perchè, Signore,
perchè me ne rimuneri così?
Diedi gioielli della Madonna al manto,
e diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel,
che ne ridean più belli.
Nell’ora del dolor
perchè, perchè, Signor,
ah, perchè me ne rimuneri così?

 

(English translation)

I lived for my art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!

With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Always with true faith
my prayer
rose to the holy shrines.
Always with true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
and I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,

which smiled with more beauty.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?

 

“Un bel di vedremo” from Madame Butterfly (1904)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Madame Butterfly, Puccini’s next opera after Tosca, was completed barely in time for its Milan premiere in February 1904. The preceding year, Puccini was badly injured in an automobile accident and had to spend several months recovering.  This put the opera significantly behind schedule. As a result, the premiere was badly under-rehearsed resulting in the opera being a failure. Luckily, a second performance the following May was better prepared.  In the meantime, Puccini had made several important revisions to the score – a process that continued until 1907. The second performance was a great success, and Madame Butterfly has become one of the most frequently performed operas.

The plot for the opera was derived from a short story set in Japan by the Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long, adapted for the stage by David Belasco. Long claimed that his story was inspired by the reminiscences of his sister, who had lived in Nagasaki for many years as the wife of an American missionary. However, Long’s story is strikingly similar to the novel Madame Chrysanthème, written in 1887 by Pierre Loti, and it seems unlikely that Long was not at least aware of the book. Puccini saw Belasco’s play in London, where he was supervising performances of Tosca, and quickly recognized the operatic possibilities.

The story takes place in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1904. Pinkerton, an American Naval Officer, plans to marry Cio-Cio San (nicknamed Butterfly), a young Japanese girl. For Pinkerton, this is purely a temporary marriage of convenience, and he intends to allow the marriage contract expire when he returns to America (apparently Japanese law allowed such things to happen). The naïve Butterfly believes Pinkerton’s love is real, and when he leaves Japan, she believes that he will eventually return to her.  She gives birth to their child and faithfully waits for him for three years.

Butterfly’s aria “Un bel di vedremo” (One Beautiful Day) occurs early in Act II. Her attendant and friends have been trying to convince her of the foolishness of waiting for Pinkerton, but she rejects their arguments, singing “One beautiful day we will see a strand of smoke arising over the far horizon on the sea.” She imagines Pinkerton’s ship docking, and pictures him climbing the hill to their house, calling for his “little orange blossom.” She believes this with “secure faith,” and will continue to wait for that day to come.

Un bel dì, vedremo
levarsi un fil di fumo
sull’estremo confin del mare.
E poi la nave appare.
Poi la nave bianca
entra nel porto,
romba il suo saluto.
Vedi? È venuto!

Io non gli scendo incontro. Io no.
Mi metto là sul ciglio del colle e aspetto,
e aspetto gran tempo
e non mi pesa,
la lunga attesa.

E uscito dalla folla cittadina,
un uomo, un picciol punto
s’avvia per la collina.
Chi sarà? chi sarà?
E come sarà giunto
che dirà? che dirà?
Chiamerà Butterfly dalla lontana.
Io senza dar risposta
me ne starò nascosta
un po’ per celia
e un po’ per non morire
al primo incontro;
ed egli alquanto in pena
chiamerà, chiamerà:
“Piccina mogliettina,
olezzo di verbena”
i nomi che mi dava al suo venire.

Tutto questo avverrà,
te lo prometto.
Tienti la tua paura,
io con sicura fede l’aspetto.

(English translation)

One good day, we will see
Arising a strand of smoke
Over the far horizon on the sea
And then the ship appears
And then the ship is white
It enters into the port,
it rumbles its salute.
Do you see it? He is coming!

I don’t go down to meet him, not I.
I stay upon the edge of the hill
And I wait a long time
but I do not grow weary
of the long wait.

And leaving from the crowded city,
A man, a little speck
Climbing the hill.
Who is it? Who is it?

And as he arrives
What will he say? What will he say?
He will call Butterfly from the distance
I without answering
Stay hidden
A little to tease him,
A little as to not die.
At the first meeting,
And then a little troubled
He will call, he will call
“Little one, dear wife
Blossom of orange”
The names he called me at his last coming.

All this will happen,
I promise you this
Hold back your fears -
I with secure faith wait for him.

 

Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda (1876)
Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886)

Born near Cremona, Ponchielli won a scholarship to study at the Milan Conservatory when he was only nine years old. Only a year later he wrote a symphony. Despite this promising beginning, his early career took a while to get off the ground, partly due to his shy, retiring nature and distaste for self-aggrandizement. His first opera, I Promessi Sposi, met with a tepid reception at its premiere, but a revised version produced several years later was successful and led to a publishing contract with G. Ricordi, publisher of many of the top Italian composers of the day.

Ponchielli’s greatest success came with the opera La Gioconda (The Joyful One). Premiered at La Scala in 1876, it was soon produced all over the world. Today it is the only one of his operas still in the active repertory. The plot is based on a play by Victor Hugo. It is highly dramatic and complex, involving corrupt government officials and the ordinary citizens of 17th century Venice. The title character is a street singer whose essential goodness and courage helps save many innocent lives at the expense of her own.

The “Dance of the Hours” is a ballet interlude that takes place during the third of the opera’s four acts. The scene is a dinner party thrown by the ruler of Venice, who offers the ballet as an after-dinner entertainment for his guests. The ballet is in four parts: Dawn, Day, Evening, and Night. According to Ponchielli’s stage direction, each section of the ballet involves a separate group of dancers who are costumed to evoke the various times of the day. They come together at the end in a vigorous Can-Can, which was a popular dance in Ponchielli’s day despite being anachronistic to the opera’s setting. While the sequence seems at first glance to be a light-hearted diversion, one of the themes of the ballet, the struggle between good and evil, cleverly parallels the plot of the opera.

 

Porgy and Bess: Selection for Orchestra
George Gershwin (1898-1937), arranged by Robert Russell Bennett (1961)

George Gershwin sold his first song to a publisher at the age of 17 for the princely sum of $5 – a humble beginning to one of the most successful composing careers in history. By his early 20s, Gershwin had firmly established himself as an up and coming Broadway composer, writing as many as two shows a year. With Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and other works, he set his sights on the concert scene as well.  Finally, with his masterpiece Porgy and Bess he moved beyond musical comedy into the world of opera.

Porgy began as DuBose Hayward’s 1926 novel that tells the story of a crippled beggar in the black tenements of Charleston, South Carolina. Gershwin read Porgy in 1926, and immediately contacted Hayward to discuss the possibility of adapting his work into what Gershwin initially described as a “folk opera.” Hayward was enthusiastic about the proposal, but Gershwin was already overcommitted to other projects and also had to deal with a busy touring schedule. So, it was impossible to proceed right away. In the meantime, Hayward adapted his novel into a play incorporating traditional African-American spirituals; the popularity of the play led to further offers to adapt it into a musical or a film, but none of these proposals ever took off.

Though Gershwin had no time to work on the opera, he never stopped thinking about it. He kept in correspondence with Hayward trading thoughts and ideas. A contract to write the opera was signed by both men in the fall of 1933, and work finally began the following summer. Hayward adapted his play into a libretto, and collaborated with Ira Gershwin on the lyrics for the set pieces. Gershwin got to work right away, and finished a 700-page full score by the end of July 1934.

Since Gershwin made his reputation as a composer for musicals, many have made the mistake of describing Porgy and Bess as another musical, albeit an unusually dramatic and tragic one. However, there is no mistaking the fact that from the beginning, Gershwin’s intention was to write a true opera, with sung recitative instead of spoken dialogue, and arias, ensembles, and choruses in the manner of set pieces. He even spoke of Verdi as an influence; however, historically most performances of the work have been staged by theater companies, who typically replace most of the recitatives with dialogue, and cut several set pieces. It wasn’t until 1976, when the Houston Opera Company mounted a restored version of Gershwin’s original score, that Porgy was staged as an opera. Since then, it is widely accepted as both a pioneering American entry into the operatic repertoire, and a surpassingly popular musical.

Excerpts from the opera have been frequently adapted for concert performance. The prolific arranger Robert Russell Bennett was Gershwin’s friend and frequent assistant; he arranged two separate medleys of selections from Porgy for orchestra. He called the  first, arranged in 1943, a “Symphonic Portrait.” It is the longer of the two, and uses a larger orchestra. The second, dating from 1961, is heard here tonight, and is simply listed as “selections for orchestra.” It is much shorter and more lightly scored, but still based on Gershwin’s original orchestrations.