OVERTURE TO THE OPERA HANSEL AND GRETEL
Engelbert Humperdinck (1851-1921)
The “real” Engelbert Humperdinck made an impact on the music repertoire that will far outlast the modern pop singer who adopted the same stage-name as a joke. Humperdinck was a respected music teacher and composer in Germany whose time followed Wagner by only a little bit. In fact, he assisted Wagner at Bayreuth and eventually tutored Wagner’s son Siegfried in music. He was a prolific composer of vocal music, including accompanied songs, choral works and works for the stage. But in spite of his masterful command of instrumen-tal writing and orchestration, he composed very little for large orchestra other than its use in opera.
He wrote a half-dozen operas, all of which could be classed as “fairy-tale” opera. Audiences of the time found his works to be a welcome contrast to the profundity of Wagner’s music drama, and he was very popular. One opera, though, stands out far above the rest. Hansel and Gretel. It was an instant success, playing performances in more than 50 different theatres during its first year. In fact, a touring company was formed to take the show on the road. Although this is common nowadays for hit Broadway musicals, it was absolutely unheard of at the time.
Humperdinck’s musical language was essentially the same as Wagner’s, whom he knew so well because of their association at Bayreuth. Humperdinck never developed a system of specific musical motives to represent characters as did Wagner, and the overture does not follow a specific story line. Nevertheless, the music evokes the moods found in the story: an initial dreamy seductiveness, followed by danger and ultimately conflict as the children confront the witch.
The overture opens with one of the most beautiful chorales for the French horn section ever written. (Humperdinck would later return to this theme for the famous “prayer and dream” scene in the opera.) A trumpet fanfare then introduces a faster section, which starts serenely and gradually introduces tension. Towards the end of the overture, the composer weaves together all the various themes in an elegant counterpoint worthy of Wagner’s Meistersinger prelude. This leads to a stirring climax, after which the opening horn chorale once again establishes the dreamy mood with which the opera begins.
VIOLA CONCERTO in D
Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812)
Hoffmeister’s parents sent him to Vienna to study law, but he decided that music was his true love, so he studied that instead. He mastered the conventional musical forms of the day, and could turn out a pleasant sounding–even if unremarkable–sinfonia for the court orchestra on demand. (Many minor composers of the time supported themselves by churning out successive works to feed the Emperor’s obsession for “new” music with which to entertain his quests. Most of their works eventually sank into obscurity.)
Hoffmeister might have been nothing more than one of these musical journeymen but he was a natural entrepreneur as well as a composer. He recognized the emerging Viennese music publishing business as a financial opportunity, not to mention an outlet for his own music. He started a publishing business, and after a failure or two succeeded in establishing a partnership that led to what is now one of the major European music publishing houses. Besides most of his own works, he published pieces by Mozart; Haydn, Spohr and even Beethoven.
As a composer, he was prolific: 66 sinfonias for court orchestra, more than 50 concerti for various instruments, a dozen or so operas, countless songs and many chamber works. The only field he left relatively untouched was the large orchestra. Schubert respected him for his flowing and melodious style, although he thought his works lacked originality and depth.
The viola concerto may be his most successful larger -scale work. Its three- movement form is conventional, two fast movements flanking a slower one. After an extended orchestral introduction, the soloist enters with a theme that will be the basis for nearly the entire work. Later themes in all three movements relate so closely to this first melody that Schubert’s complaint about lack of depth seems obvious. However, the piece is carefully constructed, showing off both the viola’s dark and mellow tone and an agility approaching the violin’s. The small orchestra not only supports the soloist’s virtuosity, but displays moments of melodic interest of its own. Even though the piece falls short of a “profound statement for the ages,” every moment is pleasant listening.
SYMPHONY NO. 2 in D-Major, op. 73
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Brahms waited until late in his life before undertak-ing to write a symphony. A true Classicist, he respected formal structure more than rhapsodic freedom. He understood perfectly well the advances in harmonic language that had developed in the Romantic era, and could use them as well as any other composer. But even though he believed in emotion-al content, he felt it best served music when confined to a more intellectual framework. His goal was to deliberately consolidate the advances of romanticism into what he considered the ultimate bedrock of music–Classical structure, whose pinnacle was the symphony. He revered Beethoven, and knew that he would be compared to the master in whose foot-steps he followed. His first symphony, which took more than ten years from inspiration to completion, was a stern testimony to his beliefs.
However, with the test of that first symphony successfully behind him, Brahms could relax a bit. The completion of his second symphony was as effortless as the first had been torturous, and the music reflects it. It was composed during a single summer, mostly while vacationing in Austria. Whatever its ease of composition, though, this symphony is no “lightweight.” It is logically thought out, with themes developing naturally one into another on some occasions and suddenly appearing by stark contrast on others. Musical scholars can always find enough fresh material for analysis in this symphony to keep themselves happily busy. However, the average listener, beyond the simple pleasure of listen-ing, is struck by one fact above all else: everything “fits.” The work is an organic whole, much more than the sum of its parts.
The orchestration is rich but never overdone–climaxes make powerful use of the full forces, but most sections display an elegant restraint. Brahms’ choice of a major key casts a happy spell over the music throughout, from beginning to end. The opening movement is the most complex and dramatic of the four, but it never manages to evoke images of a hero struggling against adversity. The slow second movement contains moments of tension and conflict, but no melancholy or sorrow. The overall character of the complete work is clearest in the pastoral third movement, with its alternation between bucolic melody (appearing first in the solo oboe) and outright vigor. The finale is fast-paced and energetic, and leads to an ending that is pure triumph–not vic-tory over adversity, but simply a declaration of irresistable positive spirit. The brilliant final trombone notes are just about the simplest chords that could be written, but its sudden appearance may be the most stirring ‘surprise” ever to end a symphony.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly