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Program Notes – Nov. 23, 1996



Mikhail Glinka is often called “the founder of Russian nationalism” in music, although it might be more proper to call him the inspiration for the movement, rather than the founder. The son of a moderately wealthy landowning family, he had the leisure to become a musical dilettante. He spent the early part of his career neglecting the admittedly easy duties of his job as a minor civil servant, and composing undistinguished songs, chamber music and a few uninspired orchestral works. These frequently drew on the feel for Russian folk songs and their dissonant harmonizations by peasants (which he heard frequently while a child under his grandmother’s care). But, for the most part, their musical structure and language initiated the only formal serious music he had ever been exposed to: Italian opera, which was then very popular in St. Petersburg.

At age 26, motivated by concerns for his health (he was somewhat of a hypochondriac) he embarked on an extended visitation to Western Europe that changed his life. He became friends with Donizetti and Bellini and absorbed their approach to the Italian opera (he previously only knew Rossini’s works), and met other musical luminaries of the time, including Berlioz and Mendelssohn. Most importantly, though, he spent five months in formal musical training in Berlin with a well respected tutor. At the end of this intense study, he had at least some command of most of the compositional techniques of European music. When his father died, he returned to Russia to settle down for good.

After a few more years of musical dilettantism he perfected his ability to write colorfully for large orchestra, and started work on a symphony. But his experience with Italian opera drew him to the stage, and his desire to do something truly “Russian” started him down the path that led eventually to the first Russian opera: A Life for the Tzar. In it, he combined his newfound command of Western musical language with his boyhood feel for Russian peasant songs and harmony, all in the setting of the story of a historical Russian hero, Ivan Susanin. Against all odds, this work by an unknown composer was actually accepted by the St. Petersburg opera, and was an immediate success with the public. As a follow-up he immediately began work on RussIan and LudmilIa. However, he could not devote his full time to it, and only years later was he able to complete it.

Based on a ‘fairy tale’ poem by Pushkin, it is not nearly so “Russian” a concept as A Life for the Tzar had been. The music itself draws very little on Russian folk music, and the opera probably “imitates” more than it “creates” its musical language. Nevertheless, it is generally considered his masterpiece, and its overture is Glinka’s only single composition to have become established in the orchestral repertory. Its energetic character makes it a perfect opener for concert programs and it is played often, all over the world. The opera itself, along with his earlier works, is generally neglected. Even in Russia neither opera is performed nearly as frequently as the later masterpieces by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky that they inspired. But Glinka’s adventurous decision to make his two largest works Russian in character, rather than German or Italian, fired the imagination of the next generation of Russian composers. And Glinka himself became a model fur the circle of composers that grew up around Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov. His self-education convinced them that inspiration and genius were more important than formal training, and could serve as a basis for abandoning German formalism and taking Russian music down a new path. Because of his influence on later composers, he deserves the reverence with which he is held by Russian musicians.


LEO DELIBES (1836-1891)

The human voice is capable of a profound range of expression most musical scholars feel that it exceeds the range of any individual instrument Musical thought that can be expressed by the voice covers a gamut that runs from the commonplace to the exotic… from pop to high artistry … from ugliness and crudity to sublime beauty. It might even match the possibilities available to the multiple instrumental colors of a full orchestra. It stands to reason that the ultimate in musical expressiveness may be when the voice is joined by the symphony orchestra. Tonight’s excerpts demonstrate some of that range.

Felix Mendelssohn is known for his orchestral works, but he also composed hundreds of art-songs, as well as many secular and sacred cantatas. However he never attempted an opera (although, had he lived longer, he might well have tried this genre). He did, however, write two gigantic oratorios on sacred subjects: St. Paul and Elijah (a third, which might have been one of the greatest ever in this genre was uncompleted at his death: Chnstus). The history of a vocal and choral composition with scenery or acting goes back at least to Handel, whose Messiah is probably the most frequently performed piece of serious music ever written, so Mendelssohn was following an esteemed tradition. Elijah is one of his last pieces, and displays his mature command of both the voice and the orchestra. Less flamboyant and more serious than his instrumental works of the same era (the Violin Concerto and the Third Symphony) it nevertheless displays the solemn side of vocal expression.

Italian opera has always been one of the most spectacular showcases for the voice, and Puccini may be its greatest master (Verdi, notwithstanding). His tragic heroines undergo trials and tribulations, and this is reflected in the way he uses the soprano voice. However most of his operas also have at least one female character who is not tragic, and for them he frequently exploits the more light-hearted side of their expressive range, though still always lyrically. His first true success, La Bohème tells the tragic story of a dying young girl, Mimi. For dramatic balance within the opera, Puccini introduced a character who was the exact opposite: Musetta, who went through life blissfully unaware of the true nature of the world around her Her charming naivete stands in stark contrast to Mimi’s self-awareness as she struggles against her plight. The light-hearted character of “Musetta’s Waltz” reflects her self-absorbed and ingenuous approach to life and gives Puccini the opportunity for a musical respite from the emotional intensity of the rest of the opera. It demands lilting virtuosity, rather than profound drama, and shows off a different aspect of the performer’s expressive range.

Most of Puccini’s operas were tragic, but the short (one act) Gianni Schicchi is closer to a comedy. Based on a tiny scene from Dante’s Inferno, it shows off the lyrical side of the soprano heroine. Its most famous aria, “O Mio Bambino Caro,” is a quintessential example of the lyric side of Italian opera – so much so, that it was used to establish an Italian atmosphere for the background music of a famous commercial (familiar to all who watch television, even occasionally).

Known primarily for his ballets, Leo Delibes nevertheless was recognized for his great wealth of melodic resources and successfully invested his talents in works for the voice. In addition to several operatic works, he published a collection of several charming songs, among which is “The Daughters of Cadiz”, a light-hearted and lyrical work for soprano which shows that his skill at writing for the voice more than matched his ability with instruments.

These four excerpts, though they cannot cover the complete range of emotions available in the soprano voice, show that it is indeed among the most expressive instruments of all.


HOWARD HANSON (1896-1981)

Howard Hanson was born in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Had his birthplace been Germany in 1860 (instead of Wahoo, Nebraska in 1896) his compositions might have earned him a place among the elite. But an American composer in the 20th century has to do something outrageously original to be perceived as anything other than a “me too” journeyman, even in his own country. This is too bad, because a tremendous amount of beautiful music has been written in this century which deserves more than the relative inattention it receives. Few composers suffer from this unjustified modern indifference more than Howard Hanson. It is, indeed, fitting that we perform his masterwork in this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Hanson described himself as a “neo-Romantic”, citing Grieg and Sibelius for their important influence on his style. He studied music at the New York Institute of Musical Art and then at Northwestern University in Chicago. He taught music theory for several years before being appointed director (and composer-in-residence) of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, which he built into one of the major American music conservatories. Besides his renown as composer, scholar and educator, he was also a fine conductor, developing the Roches-ter Philharmonic into a world class orchestra under his baton.

Even though his harmonic language eventually adopted some of the austerity of his contemporaries, he never abandoned his rich lyricism, even in his most modern works. He was fairly prolific by modern standards, especially in light of his other duties, and his output includes seven symphonies, an opera (which may be the most neglected masterpieces of American opera) and numerous works for chorus and orchestra. His style is highly individual, easily recognized after hearing just a few examples. The early Romantic Symphony is by all odds his most characteristic work, and probably the most frequently played.

Like all Romantic composers, Hanson’s music depends on emotion – the evocation of moods and feelings. His harmonic language is rich and lush. Though he employs dissonance throughout, he does it so skillfully that the listener never realizes it, hearing only the moods it engenders. The music seduces its audience, gradually isolating the listener from his own universe and drawing him into the composer’s. One does not merely listen to this music, one participates in the creation of the world that it represents. The second symphony has no story line to guide the listener as he creates this world, but the emotional content is unmistakable.

For example, at the very beginning the composer spends twenty measures on a gradual crescendo/diminuendo that begins softly, swells to a lush fortissimo, then die’s away to nothing. For the entire episode, Hanson uses only the simplest of harmonies – the alternation of two chords. The compose provides the starting point, but the audience actually creates the pervading mood of tension, anticipation, and uneasiness. We have been subtly but perfectly prepared for the entrance of the horns with a heroic declamation that breaks the tension This initiates a frenetic development of the horns’ theme that borders on chaotic before it finally reaches its climax, when it once again releases is tension in a quiet melody introduced by the oboes.

The symphony abounds with this ebb and flow alternation between contrasts: tension and release, familiarity and surprise, heroism and lyricism, melancholy and joy. Even the overall structure reflects this alternation. The first movement and finale are essentially powerful and dramatic, but the central andante movement is lyrical repose. The three movements are tied together by the recurrance of themes, and each movement alternates between the dramatic and the lyric presentations of these themes on a micro scale. This sophisticated structure must have come from considerable thought by the composer, but the overall impres-sion is the direct opposite of “intellectualism” in music. It is pure, emotional romanticism. At its end we feel drained, yet replete – and well we should, for we have been parties to the creation, not merely observers.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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