Overture to “Rosamunde”, D. 77
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 with his instrumental settings. His wholehearted embrace of the Romantic ideal, which was just then beginning to flourish in literature, led him to thematic content which brought depth of meaning to his lyrics that had only been hinted at by others. One would think that his skills were 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 were even moderate successes in his lifetime, and they are almost never revived today in their original form. Franz wanted desperately to break into this field (perhaps he would have. had he lived longer) and kept trying, even in the face of failure. The incidental music for the stage play Rosamunde was written late in his career, and represents some of his most mature writing. The play closed after only its second performance. Fortunately, Schubert saved some of its best music, and it was included in the critical edition of his complete work, however, he never composed an overtuire specifically for this play. Instead, for the opening of the play (and presumably its second performance), he revived the overture from a previously failed opera Alfonso and Estrella.
Surprisingly, the overture known today as “Rosamunde” is actually taken from yet another failed opera Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp, which was written at about the same time as his masterpiece Symphony no.8, the “Unfinished”. This overture is one of Schubert’s finest instrumental works. His Romantic ideals express themselves transparently in a piece that departs very little from Classlcal forms. After a powerful series of block chords, its quiet introduction establishes a mood of melancholy uneasiness with just 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 constant motion ends powerfully. in an only slightly restrained triumph.
Sinfonla Concertante for Violin and Viola, K. 364
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
By now almost all concert audiences have some awareness of Mozart’s life. His genius was acknowledged in his own time, and his esteem has only grown with the passage of time. A child prodigy, he later became one of the finest pianists of his age, but he also played several other instruments passably. As a composer of operas, he was an accomplished showman, with a true sense for what pleased the public. (Had he been born in twentieth century America, he might well have written Phantom of the Opera before Andrew Lloyd Webber had the chance.) But it is possibly as a composer of serious, absolute music that his star shone brightest.
Music was not merely his calling, it was his livelihood. Therefore, he had to write most of his works for the reward of the moment. Nevertheless, he must have felt the impending judgment of posterity as he inscribed the notes, for many of them seem endowed with a meaning far beyond mere entertainment. The Sinfonia Concertante was one of these transcendent works. It was undoubtedly written as a showpiece for the performers, but the musical content far exceeds mere display.
Mozart had recently left Mannheim, where he had access to perhaps the finest collection of musicians of that age assembled in one group. He was accustomed to how much their virtuoso skills could accomplish, and this set the tone for this work, which was undoubtedly the greatest double concerto ever written at that time. and not equaled until Beethoven. The violin and viola are treated as equals. and their interplay is imaginative and inventive. The solo lines run the gamut from excitement, to lyricism, to boisterous exuberance – and frequently the playing demands true virtuoso skill, even when it sounds modest and unpretentious. The only emotion missing is melancholy, for this is a decidedly upbeat work (even the minor keyed middle movement).
The concerto is structured in a traditional three movement form. The extended introduction establishes the orchestra’s importance. Throughout the piece, many elegant and delicate moments are given to the accompaniment, as well as several focal points in extended tutti passages, but never at the expense of the soloists. Mozart clearly intended this to be a masterpiece beyond the needs of merely selling a piece of music. He takes extreme care to make the most out of the wide range of expressive possibilities, given two very similar hut fundamentally different instrumental colors.
For example, often the violin states a theme and elaborates it over a simple background in the viola. Then the roles reverse, with the viola restating the very same theme, then elaborating it but differently – over the violin’s simple accompaniment. Another interesting subtlety: Mozart apparently wanted to achieve a brighter viola sound to better match the violin in the middle movement, when the two instruments frequently play duet, rather than alternating solo lines. To facilitate this, he wrote the two parts in different keys and instructed the violist to tune his instrument a semi-tone higher. (It is hardly ever performed this way in modern times, even by the most renowned virtuosi.) Such attention to detail marks a masterpiece, not a pot- boiler, and this concerto is exactly that.
Passacaglia and Fugue in c-minor, BWV 582
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
If music were architecture, Bach’s big organ works would be cathedrals. More than any of his other writing, these compositions give the inescapable feeling that one is viewing a physical structure, every part linked together so that the whole thing stands immensely upright. Yet there is the distinct feeling that every single line must he there – if something were missing. it would fall. And if the organ works are cathedrals, this Passacaglia and Fugue is Gothic. its massive power seems indomitable.
The Harvard Dictionary of Music describes a passaacaglia as a continuous variation in a slow triple meter, written above a continuous basso ostinato (repeated melody in the bass). Almost invariably the harmonic structure repeats itself along with the bass line, over and over. With so much repetition, one would think thin formal structure should be tedious, and with lesser composers it often is. Bach, however, in his one and only essay into this form clearly establishes himself as its ultimate master- the norm against which all others must be judged.
Although written for the organ, the work suits the symphony orchestra perfectly, and many composers have transcribed it. The version heard tonight was done by Leopold Stokowski, once conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The ostinato melody is stated immediately by the cellos, simple and unadorned, it then repeats throughout, as required. But the ornamanentation which Stokowski introduces (first in the violins, then the woodwinds, finally the brasses) adds the continuous variation in color needed to allay boredom. The Fugue is based on transformations of the same theme as the Passacaglia, but broken into shorter fragments. Bach’s ingenious counterpoint, which can be hard to hear on the organ when the piece is not played well, stands out superbly because of the variation in orchestral color.
Capricclo Bohemian, op. 12
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born into the Russian aristocracy. And in spite of his obvious musical interests and talent, a military career seemed the only destiny filling his station. However, his dissolute father managed to squander a fortune, and then abandoned his family, ending any hopes for an expensive education for Sergei. So his mother moved the family to St. Petersburg. where a scholarship was secured for him at the Conservatory.
Like most young boys, Sergei probably preferred having fun to studies, whether musical or not. Lacking real supervision, he spent three irresponsible years skipping school, faking grades on report cards and making no musical progress, until his cousin (a rising young pianist) declared that the only man who could do anything with such an undisciplined brat was his own former teacher – Nicolai Zverev, in Moscow. Sergei was shipped off into Zverev’s “tutelage”.
The three- year apprenticeship marked Rachmaninoff’s character indelibly. Zverev, for whom the term “severe” would be too weak a description – tyrannized his students, especially those who had any talent. And this tyranny transcended music into every aspect of the boy’s life (Zverev refused to have any female students). The young man who eventually left Zverev’s rooming house for the Moscow Conservatory no longer lacked direction, but his boyish exuberance (and indeed most of his spontaneity) was now shut behind a locked door. Even though he won the highest honors ever awarded from the Conservatory, he was frequently troubled by insecurities that often interfered with his creativity, and he remained aloof and reserved the rest of his life. Only in his music did his native sensitivity and passion show. Even here his compositions generally range from lyric beauty through outright sensuality to dark melancholy – but always a deliberately serious outpouring of expression, seldom casually joyous.
The Caprice Bohemian (the Russian title might be better translated as “fantasy on Gypsy themes”) was his second serious instrumental work after graduation, immediately preceding his First Symphony. It is marked by many of the same driving, massive instrumental effects that would later cause the critics to pan the symphony as “bombastic” and coarse. However, this Capriccio is a fine work. True, much of the music is fiery and driving, but it is interspersed with many other effects. The first slow section is marked “lugubrious”, and calls to mind the melancholy side of Gypsy life, submerged in poverty and hopelessness. This is followed by a happier mood, a love song for solo flute, expanded by the other woodwinds (still with an air of melancholy, though, in the French horn echoes). Finally, the most admirable side of the Gypsy character appears: immersion in the joy of living. As the love song gradually transforms into a dance, one can easily visualize a campfire, with whirling skirts, stamping feat and pure gusto. The dance irresistibly grows more and more frenzied, until the work ends with an explosive presto for full orchestra. Bombastic fireworks, but the only fitting way to end such a fiery piece.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly