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 was the so-called “New German School.” They 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 neoclassical 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.

Pavane, Op. 50 (1887)
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

Though he was an important figure in the musical scene of late 19th-early 20th century France, Gabriel Fauré’s importance can be easy to overlook. The innovations of his contemporaries tended to emphasize more intense expression, longer forms, larger ensembles, ever more brilliant orchestral colors; qualities which are largely absent in Fauré’s music. His list of works consists mainly of chamber works and shorter pieces such as songs and piano music. He disliked flamboyant instrumental effects, considering them at best self-indulgent, or at worst a substitute for real musical invention. His masterpiece, the Requiem, distinguishes itself for its intimate expression, relative lack of drama, transparent orchestration, and above all its serenity, all hallmarks of Fauré’s mature style.

Despite his preference for smaller ensembles, Fauré did produce a number of orchestral works. One of his best-known is the Pavane, written in 1887 for a small orchestra consisting of woodwinds and horns in pairs, plus the usual strings. A Pavane is a slow, elegant and stately dance from the Renaissance era, originating in Italy but mainly associated with Spain. The work was originally written for a summer concert series of lighter works, but the premiere took place in November 1888.

At about the same time, Fauré began to frequent the salon of Élisabeth de Caraman Chimay, Countess Greffulhe, a leading Parisian patroness of the arts. The composer chose to dedicate the work to her. She raised the idea that the work be performed as a short ballet, but also suggested that a part for chorus be added. Fauré obliged her, adding a choral setting of a rather insipid text by the Countess’s nephew on top of the preexisting orchestral parts. The version with chorus and
dancers was first performed in 1991 at one of the Countess’s garden parties. The published score included the choral parts. However, since the chorus was simply overlaid onto an already complete composition, and contributed nothing essential, it is common to simply perform it with orchestra alone.

Fauré considered the Pavane “elegant but not particularly important;” still, it has become one of his most familiar compositions. The reasons for its appeal are obvious. The opening flute melody is haunting and easily memorable, but the simplicity of the texture is offset by Fauré’s genius for introducing unexpected harmonic twists, keeping the texture from being overly predictable. The choreographer Léonide Massine heard “haunting echoes of Spain’s Golden Age,” which brought to mind the formality and underlying melancholy he found in the paintings of Velázquez. Two decades later, nearly identical terms would be used to describe the Pavane for a Dead Princess by Maurice Ravel, Fauré’s most distinguished pupil.

Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, in A Major, 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 12 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. The Rhapsodies, dominated by brilliant, virtuosic writing for the violin sections, remain as popular today as ever.

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888)
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Creative people are often susceptible to periods of depression and self-doubt. Tchaikovsky struggled with such periods throughout his life, but the 1870s were an especially difficult. Spectacular successes were followed by equally spectacular failures, with some of the failures existing only in his mind. The decade also encompassed his disastrous marriage, stemming from a desperate attempt to deny his homosexuality, followed by a halfhearted suicide attempt. Professionally, however, 1878 was a banner year, with the completion of three of his greatest works, the Violin Concerto, Fourth Symphony, and the opera Eugene Onegin. But the emotional and professional upheavals of his life had taken a toll, and he entered a period of creative exhaustion. For several years, the flood of works from his pen slowed to a trickle.

The idea for a Fifth Symphony seems to have occurred in early 1888. Ten years had passed since had passed since the composition of his fourth symphony. Tchaikovsky’s letters reveal his fears that he was “dried up” and “written out,” but he was not ready to give up just yet. A letter to his brother, dated May 27, included the news that he was “hoping to collect, little by little, material for a symphony.” A few weeks later he wrote, “Now I shall work my hardest.I am exceedingly anxious to prove to myself, as to others, that I am not played out as a composer … The beginning was difficult, but now inspiration seems to have come.”

Once inspiration came, Tchaikovsky, as usual, was able to work very quickly. A sketch of the symphony was finished within six weeks, with the full score being completed quickly. Tchaikovsky was decidedly pleased with the effort: “I have not blundered, it has turned out well,” he wrote. Unfortunately, his reaction to the November premiere in St. Petersburg revealed that he had not overcome his tendency toward self-doubt. “I have come to the conclusion,” he wrote, “that it is a failure. There is something repellent, something superfluous, patchy and insecure, which the public instinctively recognizes. It was obvious to me that the ovations I received were prompted more by my earlier work, and that the Symphony itself did not really please the audience. This realization brings a sharp twinge of dissatisfaction with myself. Am I really played out, as they say?”

It took a performance in Hamburg the following year to finally bring him around. The orchestra was much better prepared than at the St. Petersburg performance, and the new symphony was enthusiastically received by both the audience and critics. Even Brahms, who loathed Tchaikovsky, was less critical than usual. “The Fifth Symphony was magnificently played,” Tchaikovsky reported, “and I like it far better now.” A striking feature of the symphony, and a unique one for Tchaikovsky, is the use of a “motto,” a theme which recurs in various transformations in every movement of the symphony. Tchaikovsky’s sketches include a marginal note that gives this theme a tantalizing significance: “Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro. (1) Murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX. (2) Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faith??? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.”

This is the only apparent clue to a possible program for the symphony, but there is no indication that it was “carried out” any further. It seems reasonable to describe the recurring theme as a “Fate motive,” as almost all commentators do. It is heard at the beginning in a foreboding, apprehensive mood. It recurs in the second movement as a brutal interruption of a moment of heartfelt expression. We hear it again near the end of the third movement as a ghostly presence hovering around the edges of a waltz tune, and in the finale as the subject of a ceremonial march. Tchaikovsky left us a detailed program for the Fourth Symphony, revolving around man’s struggle with Fate, but with the Fifth we have nothing to go on. Perhaps it would be best to “Let him guess it who can,” as Tchaikovsky would suggest in connection with his next, and last, symphony.

The symphony begins with a slow introduction, including a single statement of the Fate theme by two clarinets in unison in their low register, simply accompanied by low strings. The mood is somber, gray and colorless. The first movement proper gets under way as the tempo quickens, and clarinet and bassoon introduce a theme which, while still somber, has an infectious rhythmic lilt. The theme builds to a rousing climax, and is followed by a complete contrast, one of those tender, yearning themes in the strings which Tchaikovsky does so well. The development section is extended and complex, described by Edward Downs as “a battlefield of rhythms and sonorities.” Both themes are heard, often in combination. A solo bassoon introduces the recapitulation, which is fairly straightforward, but is followed by a long coda which builds to a brilliant climax, only to sink away to an e-minor triad, unusually voiced in the lowest register of the orchestra.

The second movement again begins with somber, low chords, which suddenly give way to a gorgeous, romantic theme in the solo horn. Lovely as this theme is, it has a strange, unfinished quality to it. The theme it never really comes to a proper conclusion but always gives way to a secondary theme which turns out to be the more important of the two. This is a movement built around long buildups to ever larger climaxes, which tend to be wiped out by unexpected reappearances of the Fate motive, until the movement finally comes to an end in a mood of resigned contentment.

As an antidote to the intense heat of the second movement, something cooler, was needed. Tchaikovsky supplied with a Waltz in place of the traditional Scherzo. The principal theme is based on a tune he heard sung by a Florentine street urchin during a trip to Italy several years earlier. This is not music of deep emotion, but there is a sense of melancholy which is never entirely absent. After a lighter, almost Mendelssohn like trio, the principal theme returns, and the Fate motive makes a brief but unmistakable appearance just before the end.

The Finale is long, formally complex, and draining. Few symphonic movements are as exhausting, for both performer and listener as this. The Fate motive is heard at the outset, now in a major key and cast as a stately, triumphant processional. The main body of the movement gets underway with a sudden quickening of tempo and a return to the minor mode. What follows is a normal sonata form with two contrasting themes and a development section that treats both themes and the Fate motive. Despite the normality of its form, this is music of unrelenting momentum. Buildups are followed by bigger buildups, climaxes by greater climaxes, until a series of emphatic major triads is followed by a sudden silence. At this point a sizable portion of the audience begins applauding, being fooled into thinking the symphony is over. Tchaikovsky, however, has one more surprise. The Fate motive is heard a final time, now transformed into a grandiose march of triumph. A Presto coda follows, featuring several more long buildups, until the symphony finally ends with trumpets, quadruple fortissimo, recalling he principal theme of the first movement, bringing the symphony full circle.