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Program Notes – Nov. 21, 1992

Dramatic Overture “Patrie”, Op. 19

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Georges Bizet, the only son of musical parents, was truly 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.

Although he preferred opera, he was never completely able to support himself by his stage works, and frequently accepted commissions for other forms of music. The year before his death he accepted a commission from the French conductor Pasdeloup for a dramatic overture to be performed at the winter festival, along with overtures by Massenet (Phedre) and Guiraud (Artevelde).

At the time, French political fortunes were at a low ebb, having just suffered a major defeat on the Plain of Pologne. Bizet wanted to contribute to the renewal of a national pride. He obviously intended for his overture Patrie (Fatherland) to elevate the French spirit of patriotism, even in the face of defeat on the battlefield. However, he achieved far more than simply an insipid patriotic pot-boiler. His own understanding of human emotion and pathos (so evident in Carmen, which he was composing at the same time) shaped the dramatic overture. Noble and poignant, as well as heroic. Patrie represents the mature talents of Bizet at his best.

Concerto for Three Harpsichords and Strings, BWV 1064

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

If Bach’s big organ works were the musical equivalent of cathedrals, then his other keyboard concerti must be the equivalent of the summer homes of aristocrats – comfortable, impeccably decorated, and quite pleasant, light, delicate and elegant, they are just the thing for a short vacation from the heavy portent of dramatic overtures and the formal structure of symphonies.

Late in his career Bach frequently diverted himself from the composition of sacred works demanded by his position as an official church musician in Leipzig. Perhaps because the church refused to provide him with the professional instrumentalists needed for the more complex and polished orchestral works he wanted to write. Bach instituted a series of informal afternoon concerts. These became a musical high point for professional musicians and ordinary citizens as well.

He himself usually played at the keyboard, and frequently he invited professional musicians to join him. The harpsichord was one of his most favored instruments for these concerts, and he composed several concerti for the instrument. If, perchance, he could avail himself of other excellent keyboardists, he would arrange music for multiple soloists with string accompaniment (He provided arrangements for as many as four solo harpsichords at once!) The harpsichord triple concerto performed here is one of the best examples.

Even though probably originally composed for violin, the work suits the harpsichord admirably. The soloists are clearly the focal point, and all three parts are equally significant. The orchestral accompaniment fills out the structure, and provides a necessary relief from the flat, uniform sonority of the plucked string, however virtuosic. However, the orchestra seldom plays an important role in the development of Bach’s musical ideas.

Symphony No.1 in G-minor

Vassily Kalinnikov (1866-1901)

Vassily Sergeivich Kalinnikov was a frail young man with a sensitive, emotional temperament. He enrolled in the Seminary in his rural province, and displayed an aptitude for music that eventually led him to become director of the establishment’s choir. He won admission to the prestigious School of the Philharmonic Society in Moscow, where he studied with the eminent teacher Alexander llyinsky. At graduation he was appointed assistant conductor of the Moscow Italian Opera, but the post proved too taxing for his weak constitution. After the season he was forced to resign the position and travel to the Crimea to recover his strength. While there he composed his First Symphony, which he sent to the noted critic Semyon Kruglikov, who had also been one of his teachers.

Kruglikov fell in love with the work, and immediately sent it on to Rimsky-Korsakov, probably the most influential musician in Russia at the time. Korsakov and his St. Petersburg colleagues were deeply committed to developing a “pure” Russian music, uncontaminated by German influences. Korsakov rejected Kalinnikov’s effort contemptuously, probably because of his antagonism for the westernized traditions of the entire Moscow musical circle, rather than because of the work itself. Fortunately, Kruglikov believed in the symphony and campaigned for its performance. Eventually, Alexander Vinogradsky, director of the Kiev branch of the Russian Musical Society saw a copy of the score and was so impressed that he added it onto the next season’s schedule. The premiere was a smashing success, and it was quickly followed by performances in Moscow, Vienna, Berlin, Paris and London. Strangely, it dropped from the repertory equally quickly, and is seldom performed today.

Korsakov’s initial rejection made very little sense, because the spirit of the work is much more closely allied to the “pure” Russian goals of the St. Petersburg circle. It frequently draws on folk songs and other easily identifiable Russian musical materials (such as the Czarist national anthem). Admittedly, the sumptuous orchestral treatment grows out of the Moscow tradition epitomized by Tchaikovsky than the more primal style favored by Korsakov’s circle. However, the work is structurally closer to the Second Symphony of Borodin (whom Korsakov admired) than to any of Brahms’. Korsakov’s antipathy was eventually offset by the support of both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, who had come to admire Kalinnikov’s music and championed this symphony. Unfortunately, this recognition came too late in his short life to earn Kalinnikov the widespread recognition he deserved. Before his death (two days before his thirty-fifth birthday) he completed only one other symphony and a few shorter instrumental works.

Tchaikovsky subtitled his Second Symphony the ‘Little Russian.’ At least one musical scholar has suggested that, given the support of the Moscow grand master for the composer that he both admired and championed, this exuberant symphony might be called the ‘Great Russian.’

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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