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Program Notes – April 17, 2010

Symphony no. 8 in b-minor “Unfinished”

Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

Franz Schubert was a prodigy, learning violin and piano before his teens. His beautiful boy-soprano voice earned him a place in the Guild of Court Singers, which lasted until puberty transformed him into an undistinguished tenor. His gift for composing was recognized early, and at age 13 he studied with Antonio Solieri (Yes, the same Solieri who had dominated Viennese musical life in Mozart’s day, and was thus confronted with two gigantic talents he couldn’t hope to match.) He became a school teacher at age 17, perhaps to avoid military service, if legend is correct. In any case, he didn’t care for teaching and quit after just two years to devote himself wholly to his music.

Schubert had the soul of a Romantic, at a time when the symphony had not yet emerged from the constraints of Classicism. His own gift was for lyric expression, and it found its best outlet in song, rather than orchestral music. Nevertheless, his obsession to write music for posterity saw the symphony as the ultimate vehicle. His first five were graceful but unimaginative examples of the Classical form, which he understood but never took to heart. His sixth, although still in the Classical formal structure, was his first attempt to emulate the grand expressiveness of Beethoven. It failed. He completed, but never orchestrated a seventh, also purely in the classical mold.

Finally, he abandoned his attempts to make his expressive needs conform to the classical ideal, and gave his lyric spirit free rein. The results were his only true orchestral masterpieces, the “Unfinished Symphony” (no. 8) and the “Great C-Major Symphony” (no. 9). Schubert never heard either work performed. He himself considered the eighth incomplete, and therefore unpublishable. And, though he completed the ninth, the spell of feverish activity in which he wrote it may have contributed to the heart problems that led to his death. In any case, he became one of the long list of composers who died after their ninth symphony.

Schubert started the “Unfinished” at age twenty-five, but gave up the effort with only two movements finished (fragments of a start on the third movement were included in the manuscript). Shortly before his death, he gave the incomplete manuscript to his friend Joseph Huttenbrenner, and it was discovered among Huttenbrenner’s effects after his death in the middle of the nineteenth century. This work, in particular, is a tug-of-war between the classicist Schubert wanted to be and the romanticist that he really was. Both movements have their dramatic moments, but the real appeal of the work is its song-like beauty.

Had he completed it, the Eighth would probably have been a colossal symphony, as massive as Beethoven’s giant works. Its two finished movements were, by themselves, longer than any Classical symphony. In it Schubert began to achieve a grand manner, in which he fused romantic expressiveness with powerful drama. His final two symphonies went unplayed in their proper time. This is truly unfortunate, for their lyricism might have had a great impact on later composers, and the course of musical history might have changed. Beethoven had been the point of departure from Classicism, but posterity might have concluded that Schubert had actually been the first pioneer to set foot on that new path, and that the Unfinished Symphony would be his first step.

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in e-minor, op. 30

Victor Herbert (1859 – 1924)

The Irish-born Victor Herbert is now best know as a composer of light operettas, such as Babes in Toyland, and Naughty Marietta. However, he began his musical career as a virtuoso cellist, and performed regularly in Stuttgart, where he also studied conducting and music theory. He emigrated to America when he was appointed principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera. His virtuosity earned him the opportunity to give the American premiere of Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra.

While in New York, under the tutelage of the Met’s music director Anton Seidl, he honed his conducting skills. He soon became as well known as a conductor as he was as performer. After leading several orchestras he eventually became music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, which he developed to the same stature as such American orchestras as the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. All this time, he continued composing traditional orchestral music. In the late nineteenth century he discovered the musical stage, and shifted his attention to light operettas and the Broadway show. His immense success with this type of music has pushed the rest of his compositions into the shadows, which unfairly typecasts him as a “lesser” composer for many people. His serious classical compositions are imaginative and well-crafted.

While in New York, Herbert had become close friends with Antonin Dvo?ák, who had come to America to become Director of the National Conservatory of Music. (In fact, Herbert was the conservatory’s primary cello teacher.) During this time, Herbert composed what is now judged to be his finest serious composition – prior to his success in musical theater – the Second Cello Concerto. Herbert himself gave the premiere, and Dvo?ák was in the audience. It is generally felt that the great Czech composer was so impressed with the capabilities of the cello, previously considered inferior to the violin as a solo instrument, that he resolved to write his own concerto. Shortly afterward, Dvo?ák completed his finest solo work, as the last piece he composed in America. Thus, Herbert’s conception became the inspiration for what is universally considered the greatest virtuoso work for cello.

Although Herbert’s musical language differs significantly from Dvo?ák’s, the two works share many commonalities. Both are dynamic, highly virtuosic, and rhythmically complex. Both use a full symphony orchestra for accompaniment (including trombones, which were frequently omitted from string concerti of the time because they were “too powerful”). Both have a complex structure that does not adhere to the Classical sonata-form. Both have a powerful dramatic impact, reminiscent of a symphony rather than a concerto – in fact, either could have been appropriately titled a Symphonie Concertante, rather than a concerto. Like Dvo?ák’s masterpiece, Herbert’s concerto follows the traditional three-movement structure (fast-slow-fast). However, its movements flow together without pause, so that it seems almost a unified single concept.

With his success in musical theater, Victor Herbert went on to become one of the first composers in American history to make a fortune from his compositions, rather than his conducting or performance. One wonders what his legacy would have been had he continued to focus on works exemplified by today’s concerto. Perhaps not another Dvo?ák, but possibly a place as America’s first serious composer.

Symphony no. 2 in c-minor, op. 17 “Little Russian”

Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) 

Perhaps because of his troubled psyche, most of Tchaikovsky’s best-known later works highlighted the emotional and dramatic aspects of the musical idiom, so much so that many feel that his music is always anguished and intense. This is absolutely not true for the Second Symphony. Though it may lack the polished expressiveness of his mature works, this is a fresh, exciting and boisterous symphony. Its roots spring from a different source than his later inspirations, and in this regard it stands as almost unique in his orchestral output.

Tchaikovsky almost completely turned around the feelings of the “Mighty Five” by his Second Symphony, when he based sections of three movements on several Ukranian folktunes. (This, of course, prompted Rubenstein’s scorn, and he criticized Tchaikovsky for “openly patronizing” the rival nationalist school of thought – in some games, you just can’t win!) Balakirev’s group praised the composer glowingly for his decision to draw on nationalistic elements. Tchaikovsky himself was dissatisfied with his initial effort, and later made serious revisions, especially tightening up and Westernizing the formal structure of the first movement, before allowing its publication. Nevertheless, it stands as probably his most openly nationalistic composition.

The name Little Russian was applied to the work (by others, after the composer’s death) because of the Ukranian folk music. Though the Ukrainians considered themselves a different ethnic culture, they were under Russian domination at the time. True Russians referred to Ukraine, and several other nearby provinces that they possessed, as “Little Russia.” Tchaikovsky presumably gathered the three Ukranian folk songs he used in this symphony while vacationing at his sister’s estate near Kiev.

The symphony opens immediately with a melancholy song “Down by the Volga”, intoned wistfully by the solo French horn. This is the subject for several transformations (and typically Western) thematic development before it returns to close the first movement in its original form. The second movement is a Bridal March, lifted directly from his youthful opera Undine, which was never performed. A peasant dance song appears in the Trio of the third movement, where it provides a welcome respite from the frenetic character of the rest of the scherzo. The Finale opens with a majestic statement of a theme derived from a folk song titled The Crane, which then becomes the subject for a set of repeated variations in the original round-dance rhythm as the original song, leading to a rousing conclusion.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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