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Program Notes – April 19, 2008


Prelude to “Die Meistersingers von Nürnberg”,op.47

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Richard Wagner was one of the most controversial figures in nineteenth century music, as well as one of the most important in its later development. He spent his entire mature career developing a new art-form, which he called the music drama (as opposed to “opera”). This new musical vehicle forced him to invent appropriate new musical language and devices. In his time he was revered by many and hated by many more. He became the center of a cult extending far beyond the confines of his music. However, his arrogant and often irascible personality brought him into frequent conflict with others, especially the self-appointed guardians of traditiona; forms in music.

His celebrated and long-running feud with the influential and respected critic Edward Hanslick is almost legendary. Wagner’s disdain for traditional rules of harmonic and melodic expression laid him open to criticism — and Hanslick frequently took advantage of the opening. On one occasion, he proclaimed that Wagner “couldn’t write counterpoint”. Like most similar criticisms of Wagner’s output, this statement had little merit. Wagner’s genius was such that he could probably have composed successfully using whatever elements of forms he wanted. If he didn’t write counterpoint, it was because he chose not to.

Wagner’s first mature music dramas usually dealt with lofty concepts and high artistic or philosophical ideals. Only late in his career did he turn briefly to a lighter subject for his semi-comic opera “Die Meistersingers”. By this time he had little patience left for critics, and he wove a condemnation of the self-righteous “guardians of what was proper in art” into a subplot of the main opera. The main antagonist, Beckmesser, was a crude parody of Hanslick.

Not insignificantly, Wagner took this opportunity to refute Hanslick’s criticism of his contrapuntal skills. Eschewing traditional counterpoint, he instead created three separate and distinct musical themes, each representing a dramatic element of the opera. He developed and transformed each one in succession, bringing them to fruition independently. Then, in one inspired point of the Prelude, he wove them into a tightly integrated tapestry — not the relative simplicity of a Classical fugue, but a new form of elaborate counterpoint. Into this already richly woven tapestry, he threw a fourth, unrelated element for good measure.

In his distaste for Wagner, Hanslick did a complete about-face. He now criticized the master for overloading the listener with complexity, contending that nobody could be expected to listen to three separate melodies at once. Wagner had the last laugh: Hanslick had heard them all, hadn’t he?

The Prelude opens with a grand march, representing the masters of a medieval guild central to the opera’s story. Stately and majestic, the grand march represents all that is right with tradition and academia. A brief lyrical episode leads to the march of the guildsmen, who represent the rock-solid virtues of the medieval artisans. This undergoes a variety of transformations, while still retaining its fundamental character.

The third element of Wagner’s artistic conception, in direct contrast to the formality of the march, is the lyricism of the Prize Song. Its appearance provides a brief pastorale interlude, eventually giving way to the strange polyphonic climax as the composer presents his themes in two separate keys at once. The resulting natural tension soon resolves into Wagner’s counterpoint reply to Hanslick, in which the majestic grand march of the masters has been transformed into a caricature. Doubtless, this expresses Wagner’s low opinion of the narrow minded academics Beckmesser (Hanslick) represents. Having made his point, Wagner ends the piece with the two march themes, returned to their original sense of august majesty.

Romance for Viola and Orchestra, op. 85

Max Bruch (1838 – 1920)

Max Bruch is best known for just a few early works, especially his major works for solo violin (two brilliant concerti and the Scottish Fantasy). However, also he composed many works in many formats – symphonies, operas, concerti, chamber works, vocal pieces, solo piano. He was an excellent craftsman, and his style never strayed from the mainstream of the Romantic Era which spanned his career. Probably his greatest skill was the ability to invent a memorable melody and then show it off by a perfect harmonic setting.

He was widely admired for his conducting skills, and he held the post of Music Director for several major orchestras, both in England and Germany. His reputation as a skilled craftsman, combined with his ability to avoid being pilloried by critics because he was in the wrong musical “camp” (as had happened to Wagner and Liszt), left him well-respected by the entire musical community, even though not one of its leading lights. In the midst of his career he was appointed Professor at one of the most prestigious musical institutions in Germany, the Hochschule Berlin.

Late in his career, he composed several works for instruments not frequently featured in concerti, including the viola. (His rarely-programmed Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra was performed recently by the Immaculata Symphony.) One of his very last works was a compact musical gem, the Romance for Viola and Orchestra. Written in 1912, when composers around the world were taking music off in many strange new directions (for example Stravinsky’s rhythmic ballets, Schoenberg’s atonal experiments and DeBussy’s impressionism) this brief masterpiece remains true to Bruch’s Romantic-era heritage. It is lyrical and reserved in style, but with a very intense expressiveness. Although some moments are almost “agitated”, it is more frequently relaxed and thoughtful (perhaps “atmospheric” best describes its serenity at times). This almost-unknown treasure remains true to Bruch’s belief that the composer’s primary goal should be to create beauty, for the audience to experience for itself.

Hungarian Dance no. 5

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Modern audiences best know the “symphonic Brahms”, a man who revered Beethoven and viewed himself as carrying forth the same powerful orchestral tradition. However, Brahms’ first significant works were conceived for much smaller forces, such as chamber ensembles or solo piano. Often beautifully crafted, these attracted the attention of professional musicians, but not the general public.

Among the earliest works to earn him widespread public admiration was a set of dances for solo piano four-hand (two players on a single instrument). He published two early collections of these dances, based on Hungarian folk melodies, then returned to the same format later in his career to add two more. Happy, romantic, tuneful – and above all, “playable” – these were well received by the larger public, many of whom were often somewhat accomplished amateur musicians that played piano at home for their own enjoyment. Brahms himself must have considered these works to be relatively minor, for he chose not to assign opus numbers. However, many have been orchestrated by various composers, and are now frequently played in this form.

The Hungarian Dances were written at a time when nationalistic pride was growing in Europe, and many composers were turning to folk music for inspiration. Brahms, too, admired folk music – simple, pure and unencumbered by the rules and forms of “serious” music. These dances are based on true Hungarian folk melodies, not merely written in a similar style. Upon hearing, first impressions are of a gypsy band dancing around a fire to a crudely improvised arrangement, played on a fiddle, a flute or whatever instruments are available. Deeper examination, however, reveals foreshadowings of the careful rhythmic and harmonic crafting that would be his hallmark in the magnificent orchestral works to come later. Hungarian Dance no. 5 is probably the best-known of the entire collection, its melody recognized by all. This little gem is a light and enjoyable diversion from the typical image of one of the “Three B’s” of serious orchestral music.

Wedding March from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

Felix Mendelssohn is best known for his orchestral works, including five symphonies, a number of violin and piano concerti and several concert overtures. Additionally, he also composed many works for voice, ranging from art songs accompanied by piano to full-scale cantatas and a pair of gigantic oratorios. Surprisingly, he never completed an opera. Probably the closest he came to composing music for the stage was a set of incidental music to accompany theater productions of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Although the lively overture had been written while he was still a teen-ager, it was not until near the end of his career that he returned to the work. In 1843, the King of Prussia commissioned incidental music for a German-language staging of Shakespeare’s famous play in Berlin. By this time, Mendelssohn had become one of the most famous musicians in Germany, and his skills as a composer had fully matured. Consequently, this incidental music contains some of his finest orchestral moments, such as the beautiful Nocturne.

Almost certainly, the best known selection from this collection was Wedding March. It, like the rest of the set, was an instant success and was soon performed all across Europe. It enjoyed special success in England, where it was chosen as part of the ceremonial music for the wedding of Queen Victoria’s daughter to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in 1858. (The choice might not have been purely coincidental – Frederick was the son of the King who had commissioned the work originally). The work is still played very frequently today, as the traditional recessional at many wedding ceremonies.

Symphony no. 9 in E-Minor “From the New World”

Antonin Dvo?ák (l841-1904)

Dvo?ák’s “New World Symphony” is one of the best known and best loved pieces of serious music ever written. Its origin is also one of the most controversial. By this stage of his career (it was his last symphony and one of his last major orchestral works of any kind) he was respected as one of the musical world’s true giants, As such, he was enticed to spend several years in America as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, to enhance its image. While there he did all he could to experience the land and its culture.

Dvo?ák was a staunch believer is nationalism and the musical identity of any land. His own earlier works had been based on musical elements drawn from the Czech folk music (the Slavonic Dances for example) and even his mature works still reflected the influence of his musical roots. While teaching at the Conservatory he tried to promote the same consciousness of musical values among his students, -campaigned for “an American music based om American roots” instead of European. He looked to the dance rhythms of the American Indian and the melodic inspiration of the Negro spiritual as two sources of musical material for American, composers to develop.

While here, he wrote a symphony and gave it the subtitle “From the New World.” It was widely assumed that he had done in the symphony, exactly what he counseled in his teaching; used American Indian and Negro songs and rhythms as the source of his musical materials. He denied this and said the subtitle referred to himself, as if writing “from the New World” back to his public in Europe. Furthermore, musicologists point out that he had already used all the harmonic and rhythmic devices of the ninth symphony in his earlier works, long before he became familiar with new world folk music.

Nevertheless, it is herd to deny the influence of the American musical heritage on this essentially European work. The famous largo (played by, English horn in the second movement) could easily have been sung in the cotton fields of the pre-Civil War South. The. melody and rhythms of the Scherzo ware probably drawn from Indian dance scenes he had sketched for a (never completed) opera project based on the story of Hiawatha. And the spirit of the piece as a whole reflects the vitality he felt in the still-young culture of the new world. It hardly matters whether the music has authentic American roots or not-like the grape, it takes on the character of the soil from which it grew, and mellows into its own classical vintage. The work is a favorite for musicians to play (nearly every section has solos to sing or important musical statements to make) and still more for audiences to hear.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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