OVERTURE TO “SEMIRAMIDE”
GIOACCHINO ROSSINI (1792-1886)
GIoacchino Rossini hardly fits the stereotype of the genius composer: a struggling artist, torn by emotional turmoil and unable to deal with the world. Rather, he loved life and lived it fully, his robust and jovial nature carrying over into his works. As a young man, music was the means to his ends, and to support his buoyant lifestyle he churned out one opera after another, all brilliantly executed. By age forty he had completed more than three dozen, nearly all highly successful. His music brought him wealth, but his health deteriorated. He abandoned composing completely, in spite of impassioned pleas by his public. Although he resumed composing late in his life (giving him essentially a second artistic career), he never wrote another opera.
Even though his command of traditional musical theory was absolute, he was an innovator, leaving his own imprint on the musical language that later composers would use. For instance, one of his favorite devices is a long gradual crescendo, during which he hammers away at an unvarying rhythm, building slowly toward a climax that seems inevitable by the time the music finally gets there. This is so characteristic that musicians refer to it by his name – the “Rossini crescendo” – even when used in other composers music.
Many of his opera overtures have earned an independent place in the concert hall repertoire. The overture to Semiramide is a perfect example. Written late in the first part of his split career, it is a mature work. Its themes are drawn from the opera, the bulk of which was certainly finished before the overture. However, Rossini weaves them together so well that it might seem as if he wrote the overture first and then used it as a source of thematic materials for the stage work.
The overture opens with a typical Rossini crescendo, which is followed by one of the most beautiful chorales for French horn in the literature. (Rossini’s father was a horn player, and it was the first instrument he himself learned as a youth. Strangely, however. this is one of very few instances of such impassioned writing for multiple horns in his output.) There follows a typical frenzy of energy, which calls for near-virtuoso playing in every section. Though it is not his most-played overture, (that would be William Tell), Semiramide may be his best.
CONCERTO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESRA IN A-MINOR, Op. 16
EDVARD GRIEG (1843-1907)
Edvard Grieg is probably the greatest, and certainly the most famous Norwegian composer, but for most audiences his fame rests on less than a handful of works. The incidental music he composed for Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt, in its concert form as the Peer Gynt Suite, and his Norwegian Dances (especially Norwegian Dance no. 2) are familiar to all – even those who swear they know nothing about classical music. His Symnphonic Dances, per-formed by this orchestra in April 1993, are played occasionally. However, his best known composition is the spectacular A-minor Piano Concerto. it is also his masterwork. Around the world, it may be the single most popular piano concerto among concert audiences.
Grieg came from a musically oriented family. Although none were primarily professional musicians. His mother was an accomplished pianist, who was in great demand to give concerts in their native city of Bergen, but she did not tour professionally. His father was the British consul in Bergen, but still a line amateur musician. Young Edvard was eased gradually into music, neither forced by exploitative parents nor hindered in his desires. He left Norway to study at Leipzig Conservatory, mainly as a performer (he at first wanted to be a pianist, like his mother). His keyboard skills were excellent, and throughout his life he performed publicly. But even as a young student, he found himself drawn to composing. At Leipzig he met several budding composers, including the young Frederick Delius, who became one of his closest friends.
As a composer, he at first admired Mozart, but later fell in love with the German romantic style of Robert Schumann, and this is reflected In his earliest compositions. However, his favorite composer might have been Chopin. Grieg’s many beautiful and delicate works for solo piano have led some, including one great pianist, to dub him “the Chopin of the North.” like Chopin, he felt compelled to write a full-scale concerto. Unlike Chopin, he had command of the techniques of orchestral composition to balance his familiarity with the piano. The combination resulted In a work of true genius.
Grieg wrote the work as a very young man. At the tender age of 25, he took his wife and young daughter to a secluded country cottage for an extended vacation. There, away from the distractions of his normal existence, he found both inspiration and the time to transcribe and polish it. The fruits of that summer’s efforts would become his finest composition. Its first performance next year in Copenhagen was a rousing success, and immediately marked him as one of Europe’s brightest rising stars.
The work is in the traditional three movements, fast-slow-fast, with the slow middle movement leading directly into the lively finale without pause. However, the contents and structure of those traditional three movements were unlike any concerto that had yet been written in this form. The soloist begins with a series of brilliant, crashing chords ranging from the highest octaves to the keyboard’s lowest depths, then sweeping hack up in a wave, setting the stage for the orchestra to present the first theme. The woodwinds quietly present the famous melody that all of us recognize. (It has even been used as the basis for popular music, such as the famous sixties tune Asia Minor, one of the few pop records from that period to make it to the top of the hit parade without benefit of a teen-age idol singing in it!) After the woodwinds’ tranquil introduction, the theme is taken up by the piano. The first movement could stand alone, as a monument to the energy of the north country of his native Norway. Its organic unity traces back to the main theme, which reappears throughout the first movement in a series of trans-formations and fragments. Both the solo part and the balancing orchestral passages (which are too substantial and dramatic to be called simply an accompaniment) repeatedly call upon this theme. Yet it is so powerful that it never seems overused or stretched beyond its capability to excite.
The melodious slow movement opens with a tender passage for muted strings, closed by a solo French horn. The piano takes up the atmosphere, but with a new melody, which it develops briefly. The structure of this idyllic movement is a dialogue between the piano and orchestra, featuring many instrumental solos of quiet beauty. Eventually. the opening string melody returns In the piano, but with a feeling of nobility added to the tenderness. closed by the same melancholy horn solo.
The finale enters immediately without much pause, transforming the mood from tenderness to restless energy. Both the piano and the orchestra put on a fiery display: the piano with its virtuosity. the orchestra through sheer dramatic power. The writing has all the brilliance of the Scandinavian sum-mer sun. Suddenly, the excitement gives way to a wistful solo flute, recalling the mood of the slow movement, but with a different melody. The piano then takes this melody and develops from it a “bit of springtime”, right in the midst of the summer heat. The remainder of the movement features sprightly dances on the piano, alternated with the orchestra, until the “springtime” melody sweeps out majestically in the full orchestra to prepare a dramatic closing.
SYMPHONY No.6 IN D, Op. 60
ANTONIN Dvo?ák (1841-1904)
Unlike so many great composers. Antonin Dvo?ák did not spring from musical roots – his father was a butcher. Dvo?ák’s earliest musical interest was sparked by the village schoolmaster who taught him some rudimentary music theory along with his conventional school subjects. At age twelve he quit school to train as an apprentice at his father’s trade. Apparently, the apprenticeship failed, for he subsequently enrolled in a Prague Organ Academy at age sixteen, with the intention of becoming a church musician. While there he also studied theory and taught himself the viola, becoming a very talented amateur player who was frequently called upon to augment professional orchestras when a large string section was required. Apparently his best talents went unrecognized, for he graduated with only second class honors, and the comments of his teachers that “he was rather less gifted in theory than in practical work.” This ‘theoretically ungifted’ young musician developed into the greatest Czech composer of all time.
The most influential musical figure In Dvo?ák’s life was one of the “Three B’s”, Johannes Brahms. The great master knew nothing of the young Czech’s early career, for his Bohemian homeland was far removed from the German center of the musical mainstream. Though Dvo?ák had tried to publish several works, most were rejected (a common fate for an unknown newcomer to music) and those few that were published went unnoticed. However, at age 36 he entered a few of his piano works into a contest. One of the adjudicators was Brahms, who was quite impressed. The influential critic Hanslick (who was also a Judge on the same panel) wrote to Dvo?ák and told him of Brahms’ favorable impression and urged Antonin to submit some of his other works for the master to review. Dvo?ák humbly complied. Brahms liked them also, and eventually recommended to his own publisher (Simrock) that they consider the works of the obscure but gifted youngster. Simrock consequently published several piano pieces that were well received, then commissioned an orchestral work. The ensuing Slavonic Dances became the first big break in Dvo?ák’s career. Brahms himself thereafter became one of Dvo?ák’s greatest champions in the musical world.
The Sixth Symphony was actually his first to be published, and was identi-fled by Simrock as Symphony no.1. Later scholarship established the true order of composition of Dvo?ák’s works, and it was renumbered as the Sixth Symphony. Unlike his awkward earlier symphonies, written when the composer was leading a hand-to-mouth existence while exploring his uncharted talents, this is the work of a mature, confident (and, at long last, successful) composer. Its lyrical happy ambiance contrasts with the serious dramatic nature of most symphonies being written at the time by other composers (Including his own seventh symphony, which followed shortly afterwards).
Dvo?ák was neither a radical or a conservative. His musical philosophy) was much like Brahms’: intense expressiveness coupled with the need for organized formal structure. In fact, next to Brahms, he probably best carried forward classical ideals of form and structure into the emotionalism of the Romantic era. He reworked and reshaped most of his pieces (including this one) greatly while composing, although once he settled on their final form he seldom later revised them. Consequently, his works almost always show nearly perfect musical craftsmanship. They employ all of the aural colors of the orchestra to great advantage, and musicians usually love playing them (partly because he gives almost every player his moment in the sun). Dvo?ák’s harmonies were not audacious, even though he occasionally employed unusual dissonances probably considered strange at the time, though perfectly) ordinary today. He made much use of Czech folk music, both as a source of melodic themes and for rhythmic elements. The scherzo of this symphony for example, is based on the rhythms of a Czech folk dance called a furiant.
Dvo?ák humbly considered himself merely a “provincial musical crafts man”, who understood how music ought to be constructed and followed the rules. However, he was far from being a “diamond in the rough.” Seen from the modern perspective, the elegant multi-faceted nature of his work is obvious. It is easy to agree with Brahms: the provincial Czech possessed true musical genius, regardless of his humble origins.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly