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Program Notes – Nov. 21, 1987

Prelude to the Mastersingers of Nuremburg

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 is its later development. He spent his entire mature career developing a new art-form, the music drama. This new musical vehicle forced him constantly to invent appropriate mew musical language. Revered by many (so much to that he became the center of a cult extending far beyond the confines of music), his arrogant and often irascible personality brought him into frequent conflict with others, especially the self-appointed guardians of traditional forms in music.

His celebrated and long-running feud with the influential end respected critic Edward Hanslick is almost legendary. Wagner’s disdain for traditional rules of harmonic and melodic expression laid him open to criticism–and Hans-lick frequently took advantage of the opening. On one occasion he claimed that Wagner “couldn’t write counterpoint.” Like most similar criticism of Wagner’s output, this statement had little merit. Wagner’s genius was such that he probably could have composed successfully using whatever elements of form he chose.

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 to a lighter subject for his semi-comic opera Die Meistersingers. By this time, he had little patience left for critics, and wove a condemnation of the self-righteous “guardians of what was acceptable” in art into a sub-plot of the opera; the main antagonist, Beckmesser, was a crude parody of Hanslick.

Not insignificantly, Wagner took this opportunity to refute Hanslick’s assessment of his contrapuntal technique. Eschewing traditional counterpoint, he instead created three separate and distinct musical ideas, each representing a dramatic element of the opera. He developed and transformed each one in succession, brought them to fruition separately, then at one point in the prelude weave them into a tightly integrated tapestry–not the simplicity of a classic fugue but a new form of elaborate counterpoint. Into this already rich woven texture, he then threw in a fourth1 unrelated element for good measure.

In his distaste for Wagner, Hanslick did a complete about-face, and criticized him 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 this, hadn’t he?

The prelude opens with a grand march, representing the masters of the 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 transition leads to the march of the guildemen. who represent the rock-solid virtues of the medieval artisan. This undergoes a number of transformations, while still retaining its fundamental character.

The third element of Wagner’s artistic conception. is 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 intense build-up of a 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. is which the majestic grand march of the masters has been transformed to a caricature, no doubt reflect Wagner’s low opinion of the narrow-minded academics Beckmesser (Hanslick) represents. Having made his point, Wagner sends the prelude with the two march themes, returned to their original sense of august majesty.

Concerto in D for Flute and Orchestra, E. 314

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

By now, after the immense success of the movie Amadeus, moet people have some appreciation for the course of Mozart’s brief life. Although the film might have taken some liberties, it was generally true to both the events and the spirit. He was a prodigy, performing in Salzburg on the keyboard at age four and touring under his father’s direction at age seven. By copying out the manuscripts of other composers’ works, he learned enough by simple observation of their techniques to begin composing his own works at age six.

As a young men he traveled widely in search of the locale that offered the best prospects, before he finally settled in Vienna. Here he held various poorly paid minor musical posts is the Imperial Court. Had he lived longer, he probably would have eventually risen to a lucrative position. However, the musical establishment must have considered him an upstart who had not yet “paid his dues.” Be was too naive to handle the many roadblocks, which were probably thrown up to maintain the pecking order, not out of fear of his genius. Incidentally, his genius was recognized by more them merely the Salieri of the film– Franz Josef Haydn once proclaimed Mozart “the greatest composer known to me in person or by name”.

Even though his first love was opera, Mozart composed an immense amount of instrumental music, much of it simply to help support himself. Early in his career, while in Mannheim, he received a commission from a wealthy amateur flutist for two flute concerti. He struggled with the assignment, but finally produced a work that satisfied his own strict standards: the first concerto (In G Major). However, little time remained for him to complete an equally original second concerto (and he probably had little interest in composing it), so he resurrected a youthful oboe concerto, transposed the key to D for the flute and passed it off as a new work. Today, the definitive Kochel catalog lists both works with the same opus number (K. 314).

The second flute concerto follows the standard three-movement form for a classical concerto. The soloist dominates throughout, although the orchestral accompaniment has its occasional moments to shine. Clarity and ele-gance of the musical line meant more to Mozart than the soloist’s pyrotech-nics, and even though the exuberant opening Allegro demands considerable facility, the music itself is clearly paramount. The Adagio second movement features a long flowing melodic line, demanding expressiveness from the solo-ist rather then technique. In the final Rondo, Mozart requires true virtuosity, which nevertheless–except for the cadenza–almost disappears into the lively dance, so transparent is the clarity of his part-writing.


Johannes Brahms (1833 -1897) (orch. by M. Schmeling)

Modern audiences best know the ‘symphonic Brahms,’ a man who revered Beethoven and viewed himself as carrying forth the same powerful orchestral tradition. However, Brahms’ first significant works were conceived for much smaller forces, such as chamber ensembles or solo piano. One of the earliest works to earn him widespread public admiration was a set of dances for solo piano four hands (two players), He published two early books of these dances, based on Hungarian folk melodies, then returned to the medium later in his established career to add two more. Happy, tuneful — above all– “playable”–these were well received especially by accomplished’ amateur musicians, who often played piano at home for their own enjoyment. Johannes himself must have considered these works relatively minor, because he never assigned them an opus number. However, all have been orchestrated by various composers, and are now frequently played in this form.

The Hungarian Dances were written at a time when nationalist pride was growing in Europe, and many composers were turning to folk music for inspiration. Brahms, too, admired folk music–simple, pure, and free of the rules and forms of “serious” music. These pieces are based on true Hungarian folk melodies, not merely written in a similar style. First impressions are of a gypsy band, dancing around a fire to a crudely improvised orchestra of whatever fiddles or flutes were available, Critical listening, though, reveals premonitions of the magnificence still to come. Either way, these dances are an enjoyable diversion from the typical image of one of the “three B’s” of serious music. This collection, of dances no. 5, 6, and 7 from the first set, was orchestrated by Martin Schaeling.


Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Georges Bizet, the only son of musical parents, was also a prodigy. He learned the musical notes and scales right along with the alphabet, and could both sing and play the piano proficiently at an early age. The head of the Paris Conservatoire, probably as a professional courtesy to his musician father, agreed dubiously to listen to young Georges’ singing and playing. So impressive was the audition, that Bizet was granted special dispensation to matriculate at age ten. His scholastic career was distinguished, and he won the Prix de Rome at age 19. The resulting three-year stay in Rome produced no important works, but left impressions that influenced his writing throughout his career.

After his return to France he was unable to support himself by serious composing, and he had to take on various musical back-work. Although he preferred opera, he accepted several commissions to write music for various other theater presentations. His next to last significant composition was incidental music for a melodrama by Alphonse Daudet, The Maid of Aries. The production failed after a short run to mostly empty houses, and its incidental music was unpopular with the Paris literati, who may have felt it intruded on the play. After L’Arlesienne, Georges finished only one other opus, his masterwork. Carmen.

Bizet himself extracted four of the longest segments from his incidental music, and re-orchestrated them into a concrete suite (no.1). This achieved much greater success in the concert hall than the original form had in the theater. After Bizet’s death, Eduard Giraud prepared a second suite, and the two are often performed together. Today their sparkling melodies and innovative orchestral colors grace both symphonic and “pops’, programs.

Both suites typify Bizet’s ability to capture regional flavor, so evident in his best works. The overture opens with a march derived from an old French Christmas carol, familiar to most audiences. The Adagietto (for strings alone) reflects the pastoral Provence countryside, while the Carillon depicts a wedding celebration, with church bells sounded by French horns throughout. The concluding Farandole recalls the march theme of the overture, as it brings the work to an exciting conclusion in a traditional French peasant dance.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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