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Program Notes – April 24, 1993

Grand March and Ballet Music from “Aida”

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Giuseppe Verdi was almost purely an operatic composer, and one of the most successful the world has known. Only Mozart and Wagner’s operas have enjoyed the sustained success in the repertory as Verdi’s. From the very beginning of his career, his operas were well received by audiences, although critics of his own time seldom gave him his due. Perhaps for him, like the modem 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 composer, exemplifies the modern Italian opera.

Aida was written at the height of Verdi’s career (he wrote only two operas afterward). He had already established himself as the colossus of the Italian opera. His reputation earned him an offer of an enormous commission (which he turned down twice before finally accepting) to compose an opera on Egyptian themes for the opening of the Cairo opera house, coincidentally in the same year as the opening of the Suez canal. He finally accepted a libretto that he himself considered “unremarkable” and devoid of the deep psychological and spiritual content that was at the core of his most recent successes. It did, however, give him the perfect setting to stage a spectacular grand opera.

Verdi possessed – in abundance – that one natural gift which is an essential skill for an operatist. He wrote, and orchestrally scored, melody lines, which stir the audience’s emotions to match the dramatic intent of the story line. This final scene from Act II of Aida is a perfect example of his skill At this point in the opera, Radames (the captain of the guard) returns after his victory over the Ethiopians, and the people greet him exultantly at the Gates of Thebes.

The scene opens with a brilliant fanfare (often played on-stage by herald trumpets with their striking long bells). Immediately follows a chorus sung by the people “Hail to Egypt”. Radames enters the city in a majestic but dignified grand march, bringing with him in his procession the wealth he had seized from Ethiopia, including a number of beautiful slave girls. The slave girls in the procession gave Verdi the perfect opportunity to weave a ballet scene into the opera. (This contributed nothing to the plot, but it was obligatory for grand opera to include a ballet at the time). The fiery dancing of the ballet eventually gives way to the “Hail to Egypt” chorus once again, and the second act closes on a sublime and glorious note. The orchestral version played here follows the music of the opera perfectly, omitting only the grand choral singing.

Suite In A minor for Flute and Strings

George Phillip Telemann (1681-1761)

Possibly the most prolific composer of the Baroque era was George Phillip Telemann. Besides his own several thousand works, it has been speculated that he may have also composed many of the works attributed to J. S. Bach, his close friend. A virtuoso of some renown, he preceded Bach in several positions as church organist (and, in fact, may have several times interceded in obtaining appointments for Bach when Telemann himself moved on to a more rewarding position). Many of his works were written for virtuoso soloists on several different instruments, including trumpet, horn, violin and keyboard.

One of Telemann’s favorite solo instruments was the transverse flute, which was then new to orchestral writing. With its greater flexibility and more penetrating sound, the transverse flute was just beginning to supplant the traditional Baroque recorder for ensemble playing. As one of the first composers of virtuoso showpieces for this new instrument, Telemann’s works include three concerti for flute and orchestra, many flute sonatas and duets (mostly accompanied by harpsichord) as well as this delightful suite.

The seven~movement Suite in A-minor was probably inspired by Louis Bouffardin, a touring soloist, and one of the first truly skilled players of the transverse flute. Its Italian Baroque style emphasizes fluid elegance, although Telemann took advantage of the uncommon availability of a true virtuoso to show off the new instrument. Two movements in particular, the Polonaise and the Rejuissance (“rejoicing”). demand considerable virtuosity of the soloist. They must have been extremely difficult to play on the primitive instruments of the day, and even now present modern soloists with a considerable challenge.

Symphonic Dances, op.64

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Edvard Grieg is probably the most famous Norwegian composer, although for most audiences his fame rests on only a few works (his spectacular Piano Concerto in A-minor, the concerts suites drawn from the incidental music he wrote for Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt, and his Norwegian Dances). Although he produced a large number of piano and chamber works, there are few purely orchestral examples. He never wrote any orchestral work on a truly symphonic scale: he later withdrew his only symphony, an immature youthful effort, His finest and most beautiful works are generally considered to be his songs.

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 fine 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 pianist.

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, at age 22 he was introduced to the Norwegian folk idiom by Johan Nordraak, who hoped to found a Norwegian nationalist school of music. Although Nordraak himself never made any mark as a composer, he profoundly influenced his friend’s musical orientation. From that point forward, Grieg drew heavily on Norwegian folk music for inspiration and for musical materials.

The Symphonic Dances – nearly his last orchestral work, and probably his orchestral masterpiece – are unjustifiably neglected in the repertory. The melodic materials are drawn mostly from Norwegian folk dances and peasant songs, but they are cast in a highly Romantic, German symphonic style. Most of Grieg’s trademarks are evident: simple materials, made meaningful by their coloristic treatment. For example, the opening oboe melody of the slow movement is stated above a single, static unchanging chord until the very last measure. It doesn’t matter – the beautiful simplicity, combined with the subtle shadings of the orchestral background leave the audience with a feeling of lyric respite from the tensions of life.

Although the general feeling of the work is pastoral, it still has its dramatic moments for contrast. The frenzied, whirling final dance gradually builds tension and intensity. Grieg’s frequent use of simple melodies (and simple settings for them) emphasizes solo playing, especially by the woodwinds. However, he gives all the sections of the orchestra their opportunity to shine, and these dances are a perfect showpiece of his orchestral achievement.

March Slav, Op. 31

Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Tchaikovsky stands head and shoulders above the nineteenth century Russian musical scene, far and away its greatest talent. His music is so approachable and direct that it has often been fashionable for musicologists to call it shallow. His formal training stamped him with a Western approach to musical structure and the intellectual development of thematic materials that set him apart from his more nationalistic contemporaries. Yet his quintessentially Russian spirit is the foundation on which rises the emotional content of his works. His genius was for what he himself called the lyrical idea, which goes beyond simply composing a beautiful melody line.

His life was troubled in all its stages, and clearly this must have influenced his music. It would be difficult to conceive how a man who lived through Tchaikovsky’s ongoing personal anguish could write anything cerebral and unemotional, and he did not. Nearly all his music is highly charged. Even a nonprogramatic piece is generally expressive – “wearing its heart on its sleeve for anyone to see”. Such is the case with this work.. March Slav is by far the best known of his three concert marches.

It was composed at the request of Nicolai Rubenstein (who had just recently spurned the first piano concerto. and might have wanted to get back into the composer’s good graces.) Tchaikovsky loved Russian folk music – looking to it for inspiration throughout his career – and he makes considerable use of it here. From the opening theme to the final glorious statement of the Czarist national anthem, the march draws on the music of his land. But, as in his other works, Tchaikovsky takes the simple stone and mortar and builds from them a structure. And whether it is truly a noble monument or simply a humble dwelling, almost everyone responds to its architecture.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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