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Program Notes – Nov. 17, 1990

Legends, op. 59, nos. 1 – 5

Antonin Dvo?ák (1841-1904)

Unlike 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 12 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 16, 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 perhaps the greatest Czech composer of all time.

The young Czech composer was fortunate enough to attract the attention of Johannes Brahms, who became his first champion. Although Dvo?ák had been composing seriously since age 24, he was far removed from the German center of the musical mainstream, and none of his earliest works achieved much success. 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 happily complied. After hearing them, Brahms recommended to his own publisher (Simrock) that they consider the works of the obscure but gifted young Czech. Simrock subsequently 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.

Dvo?ák humbly considered himself merely a “provincial musical craftsman,” who understood how music ought to be constructed and followed the rules. He frequently drew on Czech folk music as inspiration for his melodic themes, although he almost never quoted folk songs directly. 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 is an example of true musical genius.

Dvo?ák was neither a radical nor a conservative. His musical philosophy was much like Brahms’: intense expressiveness coupled with the need for organized formal structure. In fact, next to Brahms himself, Dvo?ák probably best carried forward the Classical ideals into the Romantic era. His works almost always show excellent musical craftsmanship. They employ all facets of the orchestra, 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.

Legends is one of his earliest mature works, written just after the popular Slavonic Dances and just before his first published symphony (which was later renumbered as the Sixth). Originally composed for piano duet, Simrock recognized the commercial potential of an orchestral version, and insisted that he orchestrate it. Dvo?ák dedicated the original piano version to Hanslick, in appreciation for his recommendation to Brahms.

Although its title implies a highly programmatic composition, in which each movement represents a different legend, Dvo?ák approached the work differently. His goal was to capture the elemental character which is the foundation of all legends, without telling any specific stories. The ten short pieces (of which the first five are being played tonight) represent various elements of the human character, ranging from the simple idyllic peasant to the heroes of cultural epic sagas, as well as nature’s stage on which their dramas are played. Part of the fun of hearing these charming pieces is letting your mind wander fancifully, creating “legends” to fit the music. If, while hearing the music, the audience invents its own legend–perhaps of forest maidens, knights errant and their stormy love affairs–then Dvo?ák’s intent has been well achieved.

Symphonic Variations, op. 46

Cesar Franck (1822-1890)

Cesar Franck was born in Belgium, of German ethnic heritage, but he later became one of the most influen-tial French composers of the l9th century. As a child his father exploited his obvious musical talents, enrolling him in the Liege Conservatory at age eight, and arranging for his public performance debut as a prodiqy pianist at age thirteen. Although he was an immediate success, his true skills were still undeveloped, for lack of formal training. His father therefore enrolled him in the Paris Conservatory, where he learned musical theory as well as improving his keyboard virtuosity. He returned to the tour as a teen-aged virtuoso, and once again became a public sensation.

However, his brilliant early career waned as he grew from a prodigious teenager into merely a gifted young pianist, and he eventually broke with his father, left home and gave up public performance. During this period he wrote a few trivial piano works, none of which indi-cated the genius that would later emerge. (One unpublished symphonic poem from this period has been recently discovered, which foreshadowed his later command of the orchestral medium). For the next dozen years, he supported himself and his wife as a church organist, gradu-ally developing the same virtuoso skills on the organ as he had originally learned at the piano. At age 35 he was appointed organist and music director of a major cathedral, and began to develop an influential position in French music. He gradually resumed composing, including organ, choral and sacred works. The last 12 years of his life were intensely creative, and he wrote his half-dozen great symphonic works, including the Symphonic Variations, near the end of his career.

His orchestral style was influenced by his experience at the organ. Most of his symphonic works are complex syntheses, employing conflicting harmonies and unusual simultaneous rhythmic patterns in different parts of the orchestra. The resulting musical architecture frequently includes massive organ-like timbres side-by-side with simple and delicate textures, but almost always delivers an intensely emotional expressiveness. This is evident even here, in a piece conceived as a virtuoso showpiece for piano, but which integrates the soloist into its complex orchestral architecture. Symphonic Variations has not achieved the repertory status of the major piano concerti, but it is a serious work that manifests considerable depth. It is serious and dramatic, but quite enjoyable to its audience, and deserves to be played more often. We are proud to present it for your enjoyment.

Symphony no. 3 “Eroica,” op. 55

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-l827)

Ludwig van Beethoven is probably the most admired composer of serious symphonic music. He was a true giant, changing the direction of classical music onto a new path. The change in musical philosophy that he began would become the foundation for almost everything that followed. The influence of his concepts is still being felt in today’s musical world. Possibly the most important concept that he introduced was a change in the relationship between music and extra-musical considerations. He was the first composer to formulate a ‘symphonic ideal’–a goal to be achieved in relating a particular symphony to its inspirations–then devise what-ever compositional techniques he needed to make the music fit that ideal. This is the very essence of Romanticism in music.

Beethoven had inherited the Viennese Classical tradition, perfected by Mozart and Haydn, as his starting point. Prior to Beethoven’s influence, the structure of the music came first. Rules had developed that had to be followed, and the music was composed to fit them. Expressiveness could only be achieved within their confines, and intense expression was the exception rather than the norm. Even Beethoven’s first two symphonies took only small liberties with these established rules. But Beethoven’s personality was an elemental force! As his career developed, he must have felt increasingly confined by the constraints that the Classical tradition imposed on his needs to express himself musically. Finally, after a few preliminary struggles, he burst the bonds that confined him in one giant effort–the “Eroica” was the stunning result.

From our present perspective, the Third Symphony is merely one piece of great music among many. But at the time it was a truly radical departure. Its scope is enormous, and it is full of devices (both large and small that had never previously been employed in a symphony. For example, the first movement of a Classical symphony follows a standard form: after a brief introduction a musical idea is initially expressed in its most direct form (exposition). Then the composer transforms that first subject into a variety of related ideas (development), limited only by his creativity and the need to retain the related character of the new expres-sions. Finally, he returns to the main subject and concludes with the original idea (recapitulation).

When Beethoven arrived at the point in the first movement when the recapitulation would ordinarily begin, he found that he had more to say. So he started an entirely new development section, which transfigured the original subject in a completely different direction. Then, in the recapitulation, he combined elements of both developments with the original subject. The result was a first movement that was longer than any previous complete symphony! The rest of the composition was also enormously deep–full of drama, majesty, heroism, mobil-ity and all the other powerful emotions that never seemed to fit into the constraints of Classical tradition. At that moment musical development started down the path to the Romantic era.

Possibly the most important aspect of the “Eroica,” though, is its origin. It clearly sprang from an extra-musical inspiration–Beethoven wanted to pay tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he considered at that time a true hero among men. So he set out to compose a work replete with the emotions needed to truly express his admiration for Napoleon, champion of the common man over inherited nobility. But to do so, he had to transform the symphony to a new vehicle of expression. This need to express extra-musical ideas within the musical language is the very core of Romanticiam. Ironically, Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor just before Beethoven completed the work. Furious with this betrayal of his political ideal, the composer withdrew the dedication at the last moment, and substituted the simple sub-title “Eroica”–and it is heroic, indeed.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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