OVERTURE TO “LA GAZZA LADRA (The Thievish Magpie)”
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1886)
Modern audiences have come to love Rossini’s operas, especially his less serious works. Their rich interplay between characters and situations makes then the epitome of comic opera. So well developed is his style that it is surprising to learn that he composed not at the peak of a musical period, but during a transition. In the late eighteenth century the Italian opera buffa was in decline. Its form had matured in the Baroque and Classical eras, but now its composers were little more than hack craftsmen. The Romantic period, which would emphasize expression above form, was barely born in the symphonic music of Beethoven and the songs of Schubert. The opera needed its own genius to start it down a corresponding new path. Along came Rossini.
Rossini was hardly the stereotypical artist, torn by emotional turmoil and unable to deal with the world. Rather1 he loved life and lived it fully, his robust and jovial nature carrying over to his works. Music was the means to his ends, and to support his lifestyle he churned out one opera after another, all brilliantly executed. His genius was such that he finished his masterpiece “The Barber of Seville” in only three weeks.
His command over traditional musical theory was absolute, especially his understanding of harmony. And even though he disdained formal rules, his practical nature knew the value of clear part-writing and precise orchestration. After all, if the audience couldn’t understand the music, it wasn’t likely to attend his operas. Nevertheless, he was a musical innovator, and left his imprint on the language that later composers would use. For instance, one of his favorite devices (a long gradual crescendo, building slowly towards a climax that seems inevitable by the time the music gets there) is so characteristic that musicians refer to it by his name–the “Rossini crescendo.”
From the beginning, he was a consummate composer of overtures, many of which have earned an independent place in the concert hall repertoire. The overture to “La Gazza Ladra” is a perfect example of his mature style. It bears little musical relationship to the larger work, but perfectly establishes the proper fast paced mood for the action to follow. The introductory march, which is more elegant and refined than martial, leads to a spirited development built around very few themes. The breathless pace is broken by moments of relaxation (to let the audience catch its breath?) but the overall structure drives relentlessly to the end–cleverly using in the larger scale the same principle of the Rossini crescendo that is so effective in the smaller.
HORN CONCERTO IN C MINOR, OP. 8
Franz Strauss (1822-1905)
Franz Strauss, a notable musician in his own time, is now remembered only for having been his son’s (Richard Strauss’) father. The elder Strauss, one of the finest horn virtuosi in nineteenth century Germany, was principal horn of the Court orchestra in Munich. He was noted for his exquisite tone, his absolute control and the perfection of his phrasing of a melodic line. (Even so, he did not premiere either of his son’s two horn concerti, which were extremely difficult and required phenomenal technique to perform on the instruments of the time.) Franz was an avowed and vocal anti-Wagnerian. Nevertheless, Wagner (who had so much influence that he could easily have caused Franz’ dismissal from the orchestra) respected his playing so much that he entrusted all the delicate horn passages in the premieres of many of his major operas to the crusty virtuoso.
Musically, Franz Strauss was a conservative of the highest order, which was probably at the root of his antipathy for Wagner. He revered Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn . . . all the masters of the past eras. For him, lasting value in music depended on melody, and he frequently pleaded with his son to abandon the theatrical polyphonic effects he had been developing and concentrate on simplicity and beauty, through melody. Small wonder that Franz the composer was conventional to the point of ordinariness. His orthodoxy was eventually perceived as banality, and his music (primarily for the horn) has essentially dropped out of the repertoire. This is a shame, for it contains moments of beauty even if it lack’s inspirational genius.
Franz’ horn concerto is his most extensive work, and probably his best. Built almost exclusively around a single theme, it contains several instances of bravura playing worthy of a virtuoso of his own caliber. However, its emphasis on the long, flowing melodic solo line clearly demonstrates the composer’s overriding philosophy. Now and then the orchestra has a time to shine, including some near-drama. But, in the end, the feeling is that lyricism has triumphed over excitement, and beauty over import–which is almost certainly as the composer would have preferred it.
SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN E MINOR, OP. 64
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Perhaps because of Tchaikovsky’s troubled psyche, most of his works highlight the emotional and dramatic possibilities of the musical idiom, and the fifth symphony is no exception. He had abandoned the symphony as a vehicle for more than ten years, after his immensely successful fourth. During the interim his reputation had grown. He was no longer merely an accomplished (but essentially parochial) talent from a musical backwater, but was now recognized as an awakening giant on the international musical scene.
Tchaikovsky himself had doubts about his fifth symphony, and wrote to his patroness Najda von Meeck, to express his worries. Nevertheless, after such agonizing, he convinced himself of its worth and conducted the premiere. Initially, both critical and public receptions were cool, and the neurotic Tchaikovsky immediately concluded his efforts were a failure. In fact, after Brahms (by now the acknowledged master) attended a rehearsal of the work in Hamburg and told his colleague that he liked the symphony except for the last movement, Tchaikovsky repudiated the finale, calling it “odious.” However, when the subsequent concert was a success, Tchaikovsky once again decided that he loved the work (finale and all).
The work employs a ‘motto’ theme–a device he had used effectively in the fourth symphony–announced immediately by the clarinets, darkly in their lowest register. The melody is based on an aria from Glinka’s opera “A Life for the Czar,” venerated by nearly all Russian composers. In his notebook, Tchaikovsky describes the melancholy theme (typically in minor mode) as representing ‘resignation before fate.’ It forms the foundation for most of the other music of the first movement, either by variations or by contrast, and reappears intermittently throughout the work.
The second movement opens with a wistful solo that is considered by French hornists as one of the finest passages for the instrument in the entire symphonic literature. The mood it establishes carries through the rest of the movement, which contains some of the richest harmonic treatments and instrumental timbre in Tchaikovsky’s entire output. The third movement abandons the traditional frenzied scherzo, in favor of the waltz idiom the composer loved and employed so well. Its feeling is carefree and pastorale, until the motto theme appears hauntingly at the end, as if a reminder that fate can still overshadow joy.
The fourth movement, in which Tchaikovsky almost lost faith, is really the key to the meaning of the work. It opens with a transformation of the resignation motto, but immediately the music rebels (trumpet and horn), although quietly rather than defiantly. Eventually, the strings erupt in a struggle against the fate which spreads first through the woodwinds, then through the rest of the orchestra. Shortly, the motto returns powerfully in the trumpets and trombones (still in minor mode), as if a strong restatement will put the struggle against fate to rest. This has little effect, though, for the strings resume their restiveness. After considerable conflict, the motto breaks up into fragments in the brass, and the music pauses expectantly. Finally, the fate motto returns in a major key (for the first time), first in the strings, then in the brass. The struggle has won out, and fate is no longer accepted in resignation, but proclaimed proudly as destiny.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly