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Program Notes – April 23, 1994

Phedre, Dramatic Overture

Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

Jules Massenet was one of four musically gifted children of a foundryman. The early stages of his career paralleled those of his close contemporary Georges Bizet. Both entered the Paris Conservatory as piano students at an unusually young age. (Bizet at ten, Massenet at eleven). Both were distinguished students, and both won the Prix de Rome. In the early stages of their ca-reers both earned money as journeyman musicians- Massenet playing in pit orchestras and cafes. However, their careers even-tually diverted dramatically. While Bizet struggled in obscurity most of his life (until Carmen). Massenet became one of the most successful composers of Romantic French opera. Of his more than three dozen operas, several are still in the repertoire. He also achieved considerable success as a teacher.

As a composer, he clearly knew what the public wanted– operas with both beautiful sound and dramatic impact– and at the height of his career, no French composer could rival his success. His musical style was conservative, based as much on craftsmanship as inspiration. The central characters of most of his operas were female, and he frequently chose the theme of conflict between romantic love and virtue.

One of his few purely orchestral works, the dramatic overture Phedre was written in 1873, before his operatic career took hold. As a slightly ironic extension of the coincidences mentioned above, Phedre was composed to fulfill a commission from the French conductor Pasdeloup for performance at the same winter festival as Bizet’s Patrie, performed here a year ago. The piece is not the overture to an opera, nor does it follow any obvious program. Its inspiration is presumably taken from Greek mythology, as recounted by Euripedes in his drama Hippolytus. The goddess Aphrodite, in order to punish Hippolytus for rejecting her, causes his stepmother Phaedra to fall in love with him, and then makes sure that this is revealed to his father, Theseus. In revenge for what he mistakenly believes to be betrayal, Theseus lays a curse upon Hippolytus, which calls forth a sea monster to devour his son. Though the music doesn’t follow this exact story line, its dramatic content reflects the drama and tragedy of the myth.

Violin Concerto No. 2, op. 44

Max Bruch (1838-1920)

Max Bruch is yet another composer who was a child prodigy. He received early musical training from his mother, a moderately successful concert soprano. At age fourteen he composed a symphony that won the Frankfurt Mozart Foundation Prize, and used the proceeds to obtain more formal training from the respected teacher Ferdinand Hiller. At age twenty he began to support himself by teaching music, and by twenty-seven had risen to Music Director of the orchestra in Koblenz. His proficiency and ability to carefully craft his works served him well, and he became a journeyman composer–respected, but not revered, although he even-tually was awarded a master class in composition at the Berlin Academy. His career moved smoothly upward, until he was eventually awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge and held the prestigious position of Chairman of the Royal Academy of the Arts in Berlin.

Throughout his career, his goal was to write music that was tuneful and immediately appealing to his audiences. This put him somewhat at odds with the progressive ‘New German’ school of composers, and somewhat out of the mainstream. It also ‘dated’ his style, and when tastes changed his music gradually declined in popularity. Consequently, his compositions never earned the respect that he himself personally enjoyed. Although he wrote three operas, three symphonies, over a dozen pieces for soloist (primarily violin, but a few for cello) and orchestra, as well as many choral works, only his violin concerti have survived in the repertoire, and the First Violin Concerto is still frequently performed.

The Second Violin Concerto departs from the traditional structure. Like most romantic concerti, it comprises multiple movements (three), with typical contrasting forms and tempos. But, like Mendelssohn’s concerto, the movements are played without pause, giving the work a flow and sense of unity. The slow first movement is broad and powerful in its orchestration, with almost a symphonic style of musical development. It is full of virtuoso effects by the soloist. (The work was written for the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who gave the pre-miere.) The second movement is almost a pure recitative for the soloist, with minimal orchestral support. It leads directly into a fiery third movement, perhaps even more virtuosic than the first

It is only infrequently played nowadays, far less than his first. This is a shame, because the second contains some equally fine writing. The solo part ranges from lyric beauty to fiery technique, and the orchestral accompaniment contains as many moments of drama and expression as the solo. Many of the melodies are very reminiscent of the famous First Concerto. The scoring is for a very full orchestra, and (especially in the outer movements) takes full advantage of the range of colors this al-lows. This requires a ‘big’ virtuosic approach in the solo part to balance the orchestra. As with all of Bruch’s works, there are times when the soloist sings as if in solitary contemplation, with a softness that dares not disturb a tenuous thought. However, the overall effect is exuberant and extroverted. Bruch excels at both styles of writing, producing a piece that transports the lis-tener to another world,

Symphony No.2 In C minor, Op. 17 “Little Russian”

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

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

While still a student, Tchaikovsky’s earliest compositions were castigated by the Nationalist composers of Balakirev’s St. Petersburg circle–the “Mighty Five”. Almost certainly this was because his initial Moscow training under Rubenstein was based on “Western” (i.e. German) harmonic theory and contrapuntal techniques, and his later strong association with Rubenstein’s ri-val group. Balakirev’s circle felt that Russian music should be based on purely Russian elements, especially folksong, rather than “artificial” techniques required by Western formal structure. Even at the time, the criticism was unfair, for Tchaikovsky himself was strongly interested in original Russian music, and spent much time collecting folksongs, searching especially for those that he considered “uncontaminated” by Western influences.

Tchaikovsky almost completely turned around the feelings of the “Mighty Five” by his Second Symphony, when he based major sections of three movements on several Ukrainian folktunes. (This, of course, prompted Rubenstein’s scorn for “openly patronizing” the rival nationalist school of thought–in some games, you just can’t win.) They were openly pleased at its first performance, and praised Tchaikovsky glowingly for his decision to draw on nationalistic elements. Tchaikovksy himself was dissat-isfied with his compositional technique, 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 perhaps his most openly nationalist composition.

The name “Little Russian” was applied to the work (by others, after the composer’s death) because of the Ukrainian folk music. Though the Ukrainians considered themselves a different ethnic culture, they were under Russian domination at the time, and the true Russians referred to the Ukraine and several other nearby provinces which they possessed as “Little Russia”. Tchaikovsky presumably gathered the three Ukrainian folk tunes 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 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 (and which Tchaikovsky later destroyed alter incorporating its best movements into other works). A peasant dance song appears in the trio of the third movement, where it provides welcome repose from the frenetic scherzo. The Finale opens with a majestic statement of a theme derived from “The Crane”, which then becomes the subject for a set of repeated variations in the original round-dance rhythm as the original folk song.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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