Coriolan Overture, op. 62
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Beethoven is almost certainly the most admired composer of serious music in the Western culture. The story of his life is so dramatic as to have been, by itself, the subject of literature and films. Most of us know the story of his developing deafness, which eventually prevented him from hearing a single note from many of his greatest compositions. His early successes as a prodigy performer forever transformed the style of piano performance. His greatest impact, though, was the invention of a musical philosophy that molded the way other composers would approach composition and eventually how audiences would relate to music. It may be primarily to his genius that we now consider serious music to be an art form, rather than merely diversionary entertainment.
Beethoven wrote for almost all of the musical forms, from chamber music through full symphony orchestra, but very little for the stage. His one opera, Fidelio, was eventually successful after several revisions but he never returned to that medium. He did, however, write music to accompany several productions for the dramatic theater. Coriolan is the first such work to achieve success. It was originally written to open the performance of a drama by Beethoven’s friend Heinrich von Collins at the Hofburgtheater. (Beethoven probably wanted to be considered for appointment as principal composer for the theater, which might have influenced his decision to write a work that was not intimately woven into the production as incidental music, as he later did for other dramas.) It was given its premiere, however, not with the play but at a traditional orchestral concert – whose program included premieres of his Symphony no. 4 and Piano Concerto no. 4. What an evening that must have been! After its stunning success, it was later used to open a revival of the drama for which it had originally been intended.
The original play tells the story of Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, a Roman general who had once saved Rome from an attack by barbarian tribes but was later banished from the city by his personal enemies. He then raised an army among the very tribes he had just defeated, and led it against Rome. His army had reached the city walls and was about to overrun Rome when his mother and his former wife threw themselves at his feet to beg for mercy for his former homeland. Coriolanus relented and withdrew his army just before what would have been a certain victory. In Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy, he was later assassinated by his Roman enemies while on trial by the barbarian allies whom he had abandoned just before their conquest. However, in the von Collins version for which Beethoven wrote the work, Coriolan commits suicide after his decision to grant the city mercy, rather than return to disgrace among the barbarians whose army he had led. Although inspired by a theatrical production, it is now performed solely as a concert overture. It introduces an evening of serious music just as perfectly as it had once introduced a dramatic play.
Meditation from “Thaïs”
Jules Massenet (1842 – 1912)
The opera Thaïs is set in Alexandrian Egypt, when it was ruled from Byzantium (now Constantinople), and portrays a love affair between a Christian monk and a courtesan. The holy man initially has pure intentions, to convert a pagan devotée of Venus to Christianity. However, as the opera proceeds the heroine is portrayed as truly having a pure heart, but the monk’s obsession to converting her turns out to be rooted in his humanly lust. Thaïs comes as close to “religious eroticism” as any opera ever written, and has had several controversially-sensational productions over the years.
The famed Meditation was originally an entre-acte between scenes in the second act, and was composed for violin solo with orchestral accompaniment. Nowadays, it is performed far more often as a concert piece, and has been arranged for many different solo instruments as well as the purely orchestral arrangement presented today. Although the opera is seldom performed today (except in revivals) the Meditation is probably Massenet’s most famous music.
Orchestral Suite No. 7 “Scènes Alsaciennes”
Jules Massenet (1842 – 1912)
Jules Massenet was one of the greatest French opera composers of the Romantic Era, but as a musician he was far more than that. His mother was an accomplished pianist, and she taught her son so well that he was tutored at age eleven by faculty of the Paris Conservatoire, where later he formally studied both piano and composition. Shortly afterward, his family moved away from Paris, but young Jules returned to his studies, supporting himself by performing with various musical groups (as a timpanist!). He was a relative unknown when in his final year of study he won the coveted Prix de Rome, awarded annually by the Conservatoire. He spent three years in Rome and returned to Paris, eventually taking a position at the institution from which he had graduated.
Although he is best known for his operas (Werther and Manon are staples in the operatic repertoire) his earlier compositions were mostly works for orchestra or art songs. He composed much incidental music, but his most important orchestral works were a series of seven Orchestral Suites, of which Scènes Alsaciennes is the last. Although it does not tell the narrative story of an event, it is highly programmatic music. At its premiere, the score was annotated by the noted French author Alphonse Daudet. It depicts the course of a day in a small unnamed village in Alsace.
Beginning with a quiet sunrise on a Sunday morning, in successive movements Massenet presents scenes from a Church service, the robust mid-day in a tavern, a hunt, a love-scene with a couple walking hand-in-hand under the shade of linden trees. It finishes with the village breaking into a celebration late in the afternoon, with dancing and revelry. The festivity is interrupted by the call of a bugle from a nearby military base, announcing the end of the soldier’s day. In the gathering twilight mothers call their children home and old men light their pipes. After this brief quiet pause the dance resumes, and the day ends with a festive flourish.
La Boutique Fantasque
Ottorino Respighi (1879 – 1936)
Ottorino Respighi was the most internationally successful Italian composer of the early twentieth century. Born in Bologna, a city rich with musical tradition, he studied at its Liceo Musicale from age 12 to 21. His early training was directed mainly toward a performing career (he was both an accomplished pianist and violinist) but also prepared him in the fundamental understanding of music theory he would later need as a composer. As a young man he travelled frequently, spending some time in Russia studying orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov. This laid the groundwork for the spectacular use of instrumental colors that characterizes his mature works. He has been criticized (probably unfairly) for a style that was more sensual than intellectual, for he preferred the evocation of images over the development of musical structure.
One of Respighi’s many personal interests was in the neglected elements of Italian musical heritage. He considered Rossini to be Italy’s brightest star in the musical constellation, and wanted to introduce the unknown music of Rossini’s old age to the public. Respighi’s first widely-acclaimed tone poem The Fountains of Rome in 1916 had brought him some international success. Shortly afterward he made the acquaintance of Serge Diaghelev, renowned proprietor of the Ballet Russe. Respighi suggested the idea of orchestrating several of Rossini’s later piano pieces as a fanciful, light-hearted ballet.
Diaghalev, always quick to link up with a composer whose new-found notoriety would bring attention to his own ballet company, liked the idea and commissioned the work. However, he passed the job of creating a scenario and choreography on to his principal dancer Leonide Massine. Massine created the story-line, then worked with Respighi to match the music to the tale. He, himself, danced the male lead role in the first production in London in 1919. The musical materials (themes, melodies, harmonic structure and rhythms) are Rossini’s. But the way they are developed, integrating unrelated fragments into a colorful and well-orchestrated unity, is pure Respighi.
La Boutique Fantasque is usually translated as The Enchanted Toyshop, but the word “fantasque” also carries overtones of meaning that might better translate to “strange” or “bizarre”. Massine’s original scenario tells the story of two dolls who (even though not alive) are lovers when no human is around to observe them. Unfortunately, they attract the attention of two customers who are separately shopping for Christmas gifts. To prevent the lover’s separation, the other dolls come alive and drive the customers from the store before the purchase can be made. Though the story is bizarre, the music is not. Respighi’s music is light-hearted, rather than menacing, and the resulting score is full of fanciful charm. It stands its own as a concert piece, perhaps even better than in the original ballet.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly