Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884)
edrich Smetana was the first major composer from Bohemia to view himself as a Czech, rather than part of the Austrian Empire that controlled the region in the 19th century. His music was so distinctively different from composers from either Vienna (the Hapsburg capital) or the German regions that he essentially defined the Czech nationalistic school of composition, and is still one of its two shining lights (the other being his contemporary, Antonin Dvo?ák). Smetana’s earliest successes were in the opera, not symphonic composition, although only one opera (“The Bartered Bride”) is performed much today.
In 1874, Smetana faced the problem of his growing deaf-ness, and resigned his position as music director of the Prague opera. He immediately resurrected a project he had begun two years earlier, the composition of a series of symphonic poems (in the manner of Franz Liszt) that was to establish his place in musical history– the cycle entitled “Ma Vlast” (My Fatherland). Some of its works were to be based on Bohemian legend and history, others on the natural beauty of the land itself. Before he completed the first of the set, however, he had gone completely deaf. Like Beethoven and the Ninth Symphony, he never heard his masterwork cycle performed.
An intricate passage passed back and forth between the two flutes at the beginning represents the rippling of two brooks that rise in the Bohemian highlands and soon flow together to become the Moldau. The river soon becomes majestic, the continuous rise and fall of its waves reflected in the swell and ebb of the sccompanimemt to the work’s most famous melody. (This is, incidentally, identical to a Swedish folk song– Smetana’s first professional post was as conductor of the Stockholm opera). The river passes-next through the Bohemian forest. We hear the sounds of a royal hunt, then a peasant wedding. Leaving the forest, a moment of placid serenity highlights the gleaming rays of the moon falling on the Rusalka, legendary water nymphs of the river.
The river once again resumes its flow, until it encoun-ters the St. John’s rapids. After a white-water passage, the river flows in its fullest glory into Prague. As it enters the city, it passes the castle-rock of Vysherad, seat of the ancient Bohemian kings. Vysherad, was, for Smet-ana, the symbol of Czech sovereignty– and the subject of the first poem in the cycle. Its thematic motive (taken from the first tone poem) is poured forth by all the brass in their fullest glory, to match the river. Finally, the Moldau passes through Prague to merge with the Elbe, and the final sounds heard are the rise and fall of its waves, gradually dying out as it loses its identity in the placid, slow-flowing Elbe.
PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 IN G MINOR, OP. 25
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
After Mendelssohn’s formal training had ended, his wealthy father sent him abroad on a grand tour of Europe. In succession he visited England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, and Germany again. While on his journey he wrote some of his greatest early music, and experienced the wonders of the world that would inspire many of his later works. His Scottish Symphony (No. 3) and “Fingal’s Cave” Overture are probably the two most famous examples. While in Italy he conceived of a Piano Concerto that he would later publish as his first (although he had written a youthful earlier piece). The idea fermented for a while in his mind, then came pouring forth a few months later in Munich. Once he put pen to paper, the composition took only three days. He himself played the premiere in the Bavarian capital a couple of weeks later.
Although surrounded by Romantic influences, Mendels-sohn’s inspiration was Classical, and this concerto shows it. It follows a traditional fast-slow-fast format, although the three movements are played without pause. The piano enters immediately with almost no introduction, and dominates throughout. The orchestral parts, although they admirably fill their classical role of stating and recapitulating themes, are clearly subordinate to the keyboard. They add color, as well as an occasional line of their own, but never at the expense of the soloist. The piano writing requires virtuosity, but is still tightly controlled rather than flamboyant– even the difficult parts are polished and meaningful instead of merely pyrotechnic.
SYMPHONY No. 1 in C MINOR
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Anton Bruckner was the exact opposite of the cosmopolitan artist. He was a sensitive, introverted man, lacking in the social graces, quite naive, with very little exper-ience of the world. His early training as an organist brought him a position as organist and choir director near Linz, and he became a gifted improvisor on the organ. His style was so different from the standards of the time that it polarized the musical world. Those who heard it became supporters who loved his works and considered him a genius, or else detractors who hated them and considered him incomprehensible. He wrote many pieces in his early years, mostly choral music (often with orchestra) but, strangely though, almost nothing for his own instrument. However, it is his late symphonic writing that earns his musical genius tile recognition that he has only recently received.
A truly self-critical man, all his life he doubted his composing skills. He frequently revised and altered his works, sometimes in response to criticism from well–meaning friends who couldn’t understand his unique musical idiom. In fact, at age thirty he abandoned composing altogether for seven years in order to study counterpoint and refine one of the skills he thought his weakest. It was only after this fallow period that he truly emerged as a symphonic composer, at age forty.
During his inactive period, he heard for the first time the music of Wagner, and was impressed by two elements in particular: the colors possible in the orchestra, and the idea that any single piece of music could encompass such a gigantic scope. For Bruckner, Wagner’s elements of stage drama were secondary to what the music itself was doing in its long, slow transformations and repeated evocation of tension and release. These elements eventually led to an easily recognizable style that was Bruckner’s alone. In all his works there is an organic unity of the sounds being produced (including both instrumental color, and the transformation of harmonic relationships) which makes them take on a life of their own that seems to transcend the mel-odies.
Bruckner’s first symphony is considered unique among his symphonic output. His musical ideas were young, robust and vigorous, and what would become his own personal style was still unrefined. Furthermore, he either didn’t under-stand the structural development of the typical romantic-era symphony (which is quite possible, given his general naivete) or he preferred to invent his own (which fits with his skill at improvising on the organ). A deeply religious man, Bruckner wanted his symphonies, like his masses and choral music, to glorify his God. They have been likened to the massive and uplifting architecture of the Gothic cathedrals, obviously directed toward the same goal.
It has been said that Bruckner composed only a single life-long symphony, but subdivided it into parts numbered one through nine, like chapters in a book. If so, then the first symphony is the prologue that precedes the real narrative. It contains all the demerits of his mature writing: fragmentary themes repeated in unexpected modulations, frequent episodes of tension and release, gradual buildups to a false climax, sudden bursts of fortissimo power as surprising interruptions of placid serenity. For example, the scherzo movement (the third) contains some of the most driving passages he ever wrote, almost demonic in their power. Yet it also contains an idyllic, pastoral section that reveals a pure soul, an island in the midst of the troubled seas surrounding it– a contrast that reflects Bruckner himself, and his relation to the musical world around him.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly