Overture to “Fierabras,” D. 796
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
In his short but prolific career, Schubert left the mark of his genius on almost every type of music. A supreme melodist, many scholars feel that the finest examples of his art are found in his songs. His expressive treatment of the human voice fits perfectly into his instrumental settings. He wholeheartedly embraced the Romantic ideal, which was just then beginning to flourish in literature. This drew him to literary sources of thematic content that brought a depth of meaning to his lyrics which had only been hinted at by other composers. One might think that this combination of skills was perfectly suited for opera – but this is the one musical field in which he failed, almost completely.
Schubert’s catalog of over a thousand works includes only a bare twenty for the theater. Only three of these achieved moderate success in his lifetime, and even they are almost never revived today. Franz wanted desperately to break into this field (perhaps he would have, had he not died so young) and persevered, even in the face of failure. Fierabras was written at the height of his career. He had already completed several symphonies and his brilliant song-cycle Die Erlkonig, and was quite popular in his native Vienna when he accepted a commission for this new opera. He composed more than half of its pages in a white-hot three week frenzy of composing, a furious pace which found him at his most creative.
The opera had been thoroughly rehearsed, when it was withdrawn just before its premiere (because of a problem with the producer). It was never performed during the composer’s lifetime. The action was set in the time of Charlemagne’s wars with the Spanish Moors. It revolves around Fierabras, a Prince of the Moors, who had fallen in love with his enemy’s daughter. The convoluted plot includes: Fierabras’ capture, a rival for his lover’s hand, a wrongful imprisonment, escape, knights switching sides, a battle in which Fierabras prevents his rival from killing the Moorish king, the unmasking of the illicit romance, surprise awarding of the king’s daughter to Fierabras’ rival, Fierabras’ conversion to Christianity and eventual allegiance to the former enemy king – everything ends in general rejoicing. With a plot based on all that, small wonder that the opera failed.
The overture, though, is one of Schubert’s finest instrumental works. His Romantic ideals express themselves transparently in a piece that departs very little from Classical forms. Its quiet string introduction establishes a mood of melancholic uneasiness, followed by a rich chorale in the horns that introduces a hint of tension. The rest of the overture is vigorous and energetic. Its main theme appears at once, defining a sort of restless energy, which gradually accumulates momentum until the consiant motion ends powerfully, in an only slightly restrained triumph.
Piano Concerto No.1
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Franz Liszt was the greatest pianist of his own time, and arguably 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 best concerti in the repertory 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 and is generally credited with inventing the symphonic poem. He also championed the music of many other “modernists” of his time, including Berlioz and Wagner.
A generous, intelligent and outgoing 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, not to mention numerous brief encounters. Perhaps surprisingly, he also considered himself de-voutly religious, and at various times in his life considered abandoning his worldly ways and taking vows. (In fact, much of his musical output consists of sacred choral music.) He is best known, however, for the masterpieces he composed for his own instrument
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 and orchestra. Although it was not published until age 38 when he was well established, he had begun the work in his early twenties, and it represents a remarkable 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 his concerto. Although his goal was to create a virtuoso display piece, his artistic integrity demanded that it would be truly musical. not merely pyrotechnics. Perhaps Liszt’s instinct helped him realize that a piece worthy of his skills would need more continuity and unity than the traditional classical concerto, or its audience might hear in it only the virtuosity and not the music.
Feeling constrained by the three movement, highly structured form of the classical concerto (such as Beethoven’s), he instead adopted a highly integrated one movement 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 work seems more unified, more holistic. Sometimes the shimmering piano lines contrast to emotion and drama in the orchestral accompaniment. At other moments, the piano itself provides all of the intensity, while the orchestra is effectively transparent. But – always – the music gives the impression that “every element belongs,” nothing is tacked on as mere decoration. This is a truly seminal work in the piano literature.
Symphony No.1, op.7
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Carl Nielsen was probably the greatest Danish composer of all time, dominating the Danish musical scene in the flrst part of the twentieth century. He composed significant orchestral works in almost all musical forms: operas, songs, chamber music, concerti, tone poems and symphonies. Almost all of his published compositions are still performed occasionally. Although his early works used a relatively traditional musical language, he developed a unique approach to harmony. His mature style offered an alternative direction to the avant garde that was developing throughout twentieth century European music. He strongly influenced not only his fellow Danish composers, but many other Scandinavians as well.
Carl’s father, who supplemented the family’s small income by playing cornet and violin in village musical events, tutored his son in the fundamentals of these instruments. Carl taught himself piano, and at age 14 earned money as a regular player in a military band in Odense. His playing must have brought some recognition for his talents, because local benefactors helped him gain entrance to Copenhagen Conservatory without tuition, and gave him financial assistance for living expenses during his three year stay. At first he was impressed by Wagner’s operas, and traveled to Germany to study his music, but never really adopted the composer’s techniques. In fact, his earliest symphonic works owe much more to Brahms – Wagner’s musical opposite.
After returning from Germany, he was appointed to a position in the second violin section of the Royal Chapel orchestra. which was a highly polished organization. This not only gave him time to compose, but exposed him to most of the varied directions that were developing at the time. Although they depart very little from the traditional structures of the late Classical and early Romantic periods, even his early works foreshadow the unique harmonic and melodic directions that he would later follow. His Symphony No.1 reflects his careful craftsmanship and his excellent command of both orchestral form and color. However, he is perhaps most noted for his inventiveness. Unlike many composers who come from a rural background. Nielsen does not reflect his own musical roots. The simple musical materials that he weaves into his complex tapestries show almost no influence of folk music – his musical elements are his own.
His first symphony, more than any of the later ones, shows the influence of Brahms, whom Nielsen grew to admire while studying in Germany. Even though Nielsen focuses more on the invention of themes than on their development, this symphony has the same sort of energy and dynamism as Brahms’ first. From the staccato chords that launch directly into the agitated first movement to the syncopated trumpet call in the final bars, the music carries with it a sense of inevitability – a forward momentum that cannot be opposed. Basically a happy work, its moods range from robust and vigorous to lyrical and serene, with almost everything in between. “Downers” are almost totally absent: tragedy, anxiety, melancholy, pomposity. Even relaxed moments seem optimistic and alive, rather than solemn and doubtful.
The symphony’s premiere was well received, but it fell out of fashion, and is played less often than his later works. Maybe this is because he hadn’t yet developed his fully mature harmonic style, and it seems out of character when compared to his later masterpieces. Maybe it’s because Romantic audiences wanted music to reflect Mighty Themes (such as the Drama of Struggle- leading to Triumph or Disaster) while Nielsen preferred to present the simple joy of reality. Whichever, this work is not a “diamond in the rough,” it is a highly polished gem that merely needs a setting.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly