Overture to “Sicilian Vespers”
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Giuseppe Verdi was a purely operatic composer, and one of the most successful the world has known. Only Mozart and Wagner have matched the sustained success as repertory works as Verdi’s major operas. From the very beginning of his career, his operas were well-received by audiences, although critics of his own time did not give him his due. Perhaps for him, like the modern examples of Gershwin (Porgy and Bess) and Lloyd Webber (Phantom of the Opera), popularity with audiences prejudiced high-minded critics into believing his works shallow. In any event, since the second quarter of this century, he has been given the same respect by scholars as by listeners. Verdi, more than any other, now defines the modem Italian opera.
Verdi was precocious, but hardly in the same sense as Mozart. Though he began playing keyboard while very young, and assumed some of the church-organist duties of his teacher at age nine, he was not considered a prodigy. In fact, he was turned down for admission to the Milan Conservatory when he applied at age nineteen, and was essentially self-taught as an operatic composer.
Written immediately after his immense success with La Traviata, Sicilian Vespers was conceived as a grand opera for the Paris stage. As such, it was a departure for Verdi, and the opera probably fell short of his goals, due to an inadequate story line and libretto.
Verdi possessed in abundance that one natural gift which is an essential skill for an operatist – the ability to write a melody line that stirs the audience’s emotions to match the dramatic intent of the story line. His overture to I Vespri Siciliani displays this skill in a purely instrumental medium. From its darkly haunting opening to its whirlwind conclusion, this compact over-ture captures the listener’s imagination. It tells a story – even before a word is sung – in a style much like his other overtures.
Immediately after the brooding introduction a lilting cello tune establishes a peaceful mood which quickly gives way to agitation. The original melody eventually returns, but in a more insistent form. In its turn, the agitation becomes more and more frenzied, leading to a presto ending, which requires considerable virtuosity in the strings. First exposure to this music must be a shock to any string player, however seasoned: the page is covered with black (referring to the fast passages), and the measures simply fly past. However, so skillfully has Verdi painted his canvas that, even if a note should be omitted here or there, the en-ergy and the passion are always felt.
Clarinet Concerto No. 2, Op.74
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Beethoven started symphonic music onto the path leading to the Romantic era. His transfusion of emotion into the placid Classical tradition of Haydn readied the musical world for the expressive inventiveness of Schumann, Dvo?ák and Brahms. Rossini did much the same for Italian opera, preparing audiences for the passions of Verdi. Von Weber perhaps deserves equal credit for planting the seeds from which the instrumental concerto grew into a fully Romantic flowering.
As a young man, Carl Maria von Weber was a bit of a Bohemian, and spent much of his later teens singing and accompanying himself on guitar in the local pubs. At the age of eighteen, he was just beginning to make his mark in opera, both as singer and impresario. Unfortunately, he ruined his singing voice when he accidentally swallowed some concentrated nitric acid that his father (who was trying to establish an engraving business at the time) had foolishly stored in a wine jug.
Loss of his singing voice forced him to fall back on his modest keyboard training for a performing career; he steadily improved his skill until he became one of the greater pianists of his time. Meanwhile, he also he composed. Although he wrote few symphonic pieces, his output includes 20 operas (of which three are still in the repertory) and many concert pieces for various soloists. His concerti cover more different types of solo instruments than almost any major composer of his time, including three major works for clarinet. He clearly inherited Mozart’s position as the premiere composer of concerti for wind instruments.
The Second Clarinet Concerto may be the best of these works. It shows off the soloist in the context of a broad range of expressiveness. Even though the fast outer movements require considerable technique, they are much more than studies in py-rotechnics. The musical materials are substantial enough that they would hold the listener’s interest even without the virtuoso ornamentation. And the lyrically expressive melodies of the middle movement, featuring the haunting middle and lower register of the instrument, are truly beautiful.
Symphony No. 1, Op. 38 “Spring”
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Robert Schumann was one of the central figures in the development of the Romantic era in German music. He was influential far beyond his position as a leading composer and conductor, for he was also an editor, writer, critic and a member of the intellectual elite. He published a newsletter, Neue Zeitschrift, which served as a forum for ideas driving the development of music at the time. It could be argued that he never really achieved his potential as a composer, because all his other activities prevented him from ever achieving the single-minded focus that genius sometimes needs before it can properly express itself. A modern psychologist might even characterize him as a classic manic-depressive personality, who dives into a project with immense energy for as long as it holds his attention – but who can suddenly lose interest and abandon it for something else.
This first symphony is a good example of Schumann’s manic phase. It came at a time when his stormy courtship of the brilliant pianist Clara Wieck was going well for a change. His hope of finally winning her land the attendant feeling of elation that the recent bad times in their relationship were now over) must have inspired him. Until then he had composed almost no symphonic works, concentrating on keyboard pieces and songs. Yet, In a space of four days, he sketched out the entire symphony, and orchestrated it in less than a month (a remarkable achievement, in view of his inexperience with orchestral writing). This began a feverish period of about a year in which he completed many other major symphonic pieces, after which he once again stopped for a while.
The Spring symphony was, therefore, truly his first mature orchestral inspiration, and some argue that it was his best. It abounds with energy. The fresh, lively melodies are just what one needs at the end of a long winter. The music holds the promise of crocus blooming, of leaf buds breaking their dormancy and trees beginning to turn green. The pastorale slow movement calls to mind a sleepy spring day in a meadow, and no young man’s fancy (nor young lady’s) can avoid turning to thoughts of… well, you know. Presumably, Robert himself was thinking of Clara!
Yet, in spite of the innocent, naive, feeling this music engenders, it is very innovative and never simplistic. The scherzo of this work, for example, is built upon a brand new structure, with two separate trios and a complex relationship between rhythms and tempos. Yet it sounds perfectly natural and organically whole. No major composer had ever attempted anything quite like it at the time, though afterwards many would experiment with modifying form similarly. And Brahms, of course, pushed exper-imentation with rhythm to the limits of the Classic/Romantic form. If Beethoven started music down this particular path, and if Brahms would be the one to follow that path to its ultimate destination, then it was Schumann who – acting as guide – put the first blaze marks on the trees.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly