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Program Notes – April 24, 1999

Overture to “La Forza del Destino”

Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)

Giuseppe Verdi was another in a long line of composers who began as child prodigies. He showed such interest in music that the church organist began teaching him the rudiments of playing at the tender age of three! Once it became clear that this wasn’t simply a case of a child wanting to press the keys and make a sound, the lessons turned real and the young boy’s skills developed quickly. When Verdi was merely nine, his tutor died and the youngster took over some of his playing duties officially. At age eleven, his father sent him away to the small city of Bussetta, where he attended ginnasio and received a classical education in addition to instruction in counterpoint and composition. He later applied for admission and a scholarship to the Milan Conservatory, but was rejected (which embittered him for life on the subject). Instead, he studied privately in Milan for a few years, after which he returned to Bussetta to assume the post of maestro di musica. This low-paying job provided him with security, in a comfortable setting close to home.

When his duties as maestro gave him the chance, he spent time composing works on a larger scale. Finally, after several years of trying, he got his foot in the door when La Scala accepted one of his early operas “Oberto”. It was such a hit that he sold the rights for 2000 lire, and immediately received a commission for 3 new operas. The first of these failed, but the second (Nabucco) drew the attention of the international music community, and his career as an opera composer hit the big time. He eventually became the most successful Italian opera composer of all time, accruing both fame and true wealth.

La Forza del Destino was one of his last works (only four of his twenty-eight operas followed it). He had gone into semi-retirement, but a commission from the St. Petersburg opera proved to be too lucrative to turn down. By now he could afford to be selective, and he refused to use any subject that he thought was unworthy of his goals. Finally, after months of searching, he found a suitable source: a play by the Romantic Spanish playwright Angel Perez de Saadeva, Duke of Rivas, which Verdi’s librettist adapted to make more suitable for opera.

Verdi himself considered La Forza to be one of his finest works, and something new: “an opera constructed from ideas, rather than from solos, duets, arias and cavatinas”. The plot is complex, but the theme is basic.

The hero is compelled by a chain of mischances is to commit exactly those acts that his spirit rebels against (the compulsion to these actions is “the force of destiny”). Verdi’s intent was to show that it is folly to try to find peace by retiring to the serenity of a cloister to avoid the travails of the world.

The opera originally opened with a brief prelude, which led directly into the action. Recognizing the power of his subject, Verdi later reworked the Prelude into a full-blown overture using symphonic principles of thematic development. It incorporates melodic themes from throughout the opera, and weaves them into a short but dramatically powerful work that can stand alone in the concert hall. This overture has become one of the most frequently performed of his pieces.

Concerto no.1 in E-flat for Piano and Orchestra

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)

Franz Liszt was the greatest pianist of his time, and arguably one of the greatest ever. So impressive was his playing that a cast of his left hand is on display at the National Museum of his native Hungary. His virtuosity combined such spectacular technical prowess with delicate sensitivity that the rumor was afloat that he had “sold his soul to the devil”. During his touring career he was forced to write much of his own music because the greatest works in the repertoire were insufficient to show off his flamboyant style at the keyboard. His importance as a composer is sometimes overlooked, and goes far beyond merely providing himself with pyrotechnic effects for his concerts. For example, he was one of the first to cast aside completely the musical forms that prevailed during the Classical period in favor of the expressiveness of the Romantic. He is generally credited with inventing the symphonic poem, though others were experimenting with the same general approach at the same time. He championed may of the “modernists” of his own time, including Berlioz and Wagner.

A generous, intelligent and extroverted man, he made friends wherever he went, both in musical circles and the aristocracy. He never married, though he had long-term affairs with a Countess (who bore him three children, one of whom eventually married Richard Wagner) and a Princess. His numerous brief encounters have earned him a reputation as a “ladies man”. Perhaps surprisingly, he also considered himself deeply religious. At one time in his life he seriously considered renouncing his worldly ways and taking vows. In fact, much of his musical output consists of sacred choral music.

Liszt’s First Piano Concerto was a mature work. Besides hundreds of compositions for solo piano, he had already written several large scale works for piano plus orchestra. Although it was not published until he was well established at age 38, he began composing this concerto in his twenties. It represents a dramatic advance in a brand new direction for a concerto. Much as he would later abandon the symphony in favor of the tone poem, he created a new form for this concerto. Although his goal was to create a virtuoso display piece, his artistic integrity demanded that it would be truly musical, not mere pyrotechnics. He instinctively realized that a piece worthy of his skills would need more continuity and unity than the traditional Classical concerto. Otherwise, his audience might hear in it only the virtuosity and not the music.

Feeling constrained by the three-movement highly structured form of his predecessors (such as Beethoven’s concerti) he adopted a highly integrated continuous form. Its succession of fast and slow sections serve many of the same needs for variety as the movements of a symphony or traditional concerto. However, the thematic development makes the work seem more unified, more holistic. Sometimes the shimmering piano lines contrast to emotion and drama centering in the orchestral accompaniment. At other moments, the piano itself provides all of the intensity. But, always, the music gives the impression that “every element belongs”, that nothing is tacked on as mere decoration. This is truly a ground-breaking work in the piano literature, deserving wider recognition.

Prelude to “Die Meistersingers von N├╝rnberg”,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.

Overture Solennelle “1812”, op. 49

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

“They actually shoot off cannons in the concert hall?” said comic-strip character Calvin to his stuffed Tiger, Hobbes. “Gee, and I thought classical music was boring!” It’s safe to say that almost everyone knows the flashier aspects of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture: cannons, church bells, brass bands. The solemn overture is undoubtedly one of the most sure-fire crowd pleasers to resound through the concert hall (even though it was originally intended for outdoor performances).

Tchaikovsky was at the height of his career when he was commissioned in 1880 to compose a feature piece for performance at the All-Russian Exhibition of Arts and Crafts in 1882. His first four symphonies, the First Piano Concerto and several celebrated orchestral showpieces had firmly established his international reputation as the current grand master of Russian composers. For the exhibition, he wrote a tribute to one of the most triumphal moments in Russian history, the defeat of Napoleon’s invading army near the beginning of the century.

Most of Tchaikovsky’s music is at least somewhat programmatic, but in no other piece is the program quite so transparent. The overture begins with a Novgorod peasant tune, played first by the strings then augmented by woodwinds, representing the simple purity of Mother Russia One can almost imagine the land itself as a slumbering giant, secure in its own strength. Suddenly, the serene atmosphere is broken by a stormy passage heralding the incipient war. It was as if a messenger burst through the doors into a church service announcing “We’ve been invaded”.

A single snare drum signals the march of Napoleon’s army onto the scene, announced by the horns. The Russian imperial army defends its territory in a fierce clash, but the invader prevails as bits of the French national anthem “Le Marseilles” periodically rise above the clamor. The Russians retreat.

In quiet retrospect, the people mourn the desecration of their homeland by invaders and prepare to rise against the French. Battle is resumed, but once more “Le Marseilles” is heard, as the French prevail, and once again the people mourn. Yet a third time the Russian troops attack, and this time the land itself– the sleeping giant — rises up to join with its people and throw off the invader’s yoke. (Coincidentally, this is historically accurate, for it was the Russian winter that actually defeated Napoleon’s far superior military forces.)

The victorious third conflict leads to a celebration unprecedented in orchestral music: a salute by cannons, pealing of church bells, the Czarist national anthem, along with the solemn melody that opened the work. Tchaikovsky even throws in snatches of the march that originally heralded the arrival of the French, but “Le Marseilles” is nowhere to be heard. Mother Russia has prevailed, and joy is everywhere.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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