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Program Notes – Nov. 5, 2011

Overture to “La Forza Del Destino” (1862)

Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)

Giuseppe Verdi is clearly the most performed Italian operatist, and probably the most revered by audiences. He composed twenty-eight major operas, of which at least twenty are still performed regularly. His significant symphonic output includes only four major works, one of which – the Requiem for chorus and orchestra – is almost operatic in its dramatic intensity. Only Wagner and Mozart have composed as many operas that have been as accepted into the permanent repertoire as those of Verdi. Yet, strangely, it is only in the last half of the twentieth century that musical scholars have finally accorded him the same esteem as audiences have given him from the beginning. For a long while, his music was dismissed by critics. The influential Alfred Noyes once reviewed a singer, making the doubly-disparaging remark that the performance he had witnessed had been “shallow” but that it was, after all, “only Verdi.”

La Forza del Destino was one of his final works (only four of his twenty-eight operas followed it). He had gone into semi-retirement, but a commission from the St. Petersburg opera proved too lucrative to turn down. By this time he could afford to be selective, so he refused any subject that he considered unworthy of his ability. Finally, after months of searching he found a suitable source: a play by the Romantic Spanish playwright Angel Perez de Saadeva, which Verdi’s librettist adapted to make more suitable for opera.

Verdi himself considered La Forza del Destino (usually translated as The Force of Destiny, but perhaps better rendered as The Power of Fate) to be one of his finest works. He considered it something new: “an opera constructed from ideas, rather than from solos, duets, arias and cavatinas.” The plot is complex, but the theme is basic. The hero is compelled by a chain of mischances to commit exactly those acts that his spirit rebels against (the compulsion to these actions was the power of fate.) Verdi’s intent was to show that it is folly to try to find peace by retiring to the serenity of a cloister to avoid the travails of the outer world.

The opera originally opened with a brief Preludio, which led directly into the action. Recognizing the power of his subject, Verdi later reworked the prelude into a full-blown Overture, using symphonic principles of thematic development. After three powerful chords, almost always interpreted as “Fate knocking at the door” it incorporates melodic themes from throughout the opera, working them into a short but dramatically powerful work that can stand alone in the concert hall. This overture has become one of his most frequently performed purely orchestral pieces.

Concert Overture “Cockaigne”, op. 40 (1900-01)

Edgar Elgar (1857 – 1934)

Edward Elgar has become known as the quintessential English composer, his musical style epitomizing Edwardian England. His early development grew directly out of the Romantic-era musical language, but was heavily influenced by the English composers Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford, themselves staunch admirers of Brahms. Elgar’s most famous composition, Land of Hope and Glory (from the Pomp and Circumstance Marches) practically symbolizes the modern college graduation ceremony. His greatest work, the Enigma Variations, is one of the most frequently performed English concert works since Handel’s Messiah.

Immediately after the enormously successful Enigma Variations he was forced to endure a public failure with his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, and begun to despair that his success with Enigma Variationswould make him a “one-work composer” in the public’s eye. Nevertheless, he accepted a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society and dove into a new work intended to be deliberately different, which became the concert overture Cockaigne. Elgar described it to his friend A. J. Jaeger (“Nimrod” of the Variations) as “stout and steaky” and to the eminent conductor Hans Richter as “honest, healthy, humorous and strong, but not vulgar.” He himself conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in its premiere the next year and it was an immediate success, the first of many equally impressive triumphs with the public. He had clearly established himself in the public’s view as being at the pinnacle of English composers.

The term “cockaigne” was a derogatory description, used by moralists of the era to signify drunkenness, gluttony and overindulgence in the senses. In typical British fashion, it became a whimsical (almost mocking) term for life in Edwardian London. Elgar himself considered this concert overture to be a lighthearted depiction of the bustling life of the city, giving it the subtitle “In London Town.” Various parts of the work have been described as “the cockneys, some romantic lovers, church bells, raggedy brass bands and imperial marches by polished military brigades”, not to mention its overall sense of urgent bustle. Whatever each individual hears in it, one invariably hears the music as English. It is, after all, Elgar!

Tuba Concerto no. 3, op. 26 (1978)

Bruce Broughton (b. 1945)

Bruce Broughton is best known as a composer of background music for movies, stage, television and (believe it or not) computer games. He has been nominated for more than twenty Emmy Awards, winning ten – a record accomplishment. With many film scores to his credit, he has been nominated for an Oscar (for his film score to Silverado) and for a Grammy (for the recorded soundtrack for the film Young Sherlock Holmes). He was the first major composer to prepare an orchestral score that was part of a computer game (for the game version of Heart of Darkness). He is currently a member of the board of ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Performers) and a governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His success as a self-taught composer has brought him teaching appointments at UCLA and USC.

Although his career has been oriented more towards these popular media, he is also accomplished as a composer of serious music. His output includes two concerti with full orchestra (for tuba, and for piccolo – at opposite ends of the sound spectrum!) and major orchestral and chamber works featuring horn, oboe and other winds, as well as music for wind ensemble, brass band and small chamber groups. He has also conducted, earning rave reviews for his interpretations of film music by Miklos Rosza and Bernard Hermann. Truly, he is a composer with a broad spectrum of talents.

Few think of the tuba as a featured soloist in serious music, but the instrument clearly deserves more attention. It is not only the bass sound everyone knows in the ‘oom-pah’ band, but a very important voice in the symphony orchestra since the Romantic Era. Only one truly established classical composer, Vaughan Williams, has featured the solo virtuosity of this instrument in the past. However, recently several contemporary composers have taken pen in hand to show off the instrument. Probably the best of these is Broughton’s. It stretches the instrument from its lowest notes to the highest, from incredibly soft pianissimo(you have to listen to hear the soloist above the quiet strings) to full-voiced fortissimo (you need to listen hard to clearly hear the full-orchestra accompaniment), from long and lyrical to fast, fluid virtuosity. Whatever you thought of the tuba as a solo instrument before this evening, you will certainly have a different perspective tomorrow.

Symphony No. 8 in G-major, op. 88 (1889)

Antonin Dvo?ák (1841 – 1904)

Many great composers came from musical families, but Dvo?ák was just the opposite. His father was a butcher in a peasant village. However, Antonin’s interest in music drew the attention of the village schoolmaster, who taught him a bit of music theory along with the normal subjects. At age twelve the young Dvo?ák quit formal schooling to become an apprentice in his father’s trade. Apparently the apprenticeship failed, for he subsequently enrolled in the Prague Organ Academy at age sixteen, intending to become a Church musician. While there he developed only mediocre skills with keyboard instruments, but was much more successful with his informal study of strings. He taught himself to play viola, and was so talented that he was frequently called on to augment the viola section of touring orchestras when a large string section was needed.

Although his formal major was the organ, he also studied composition and music theory (as was normal for any music student at the time). Apparently, his best talents went unrecognized. He graduated with only second class honors, and his academic record includes the comments of a teacher that he was “rather less gifted in theory than in practical work.” This “theoretically ungifted” young musician became the greatest Czech composer of all time.

The Eighth Symphony (originally published as number four) is a fully mature work. By that time Dvo?ák had achieved fame, and was recognized as one of the giants of the late nineteenth century. He felt free to take more liberties with the formal structure of a symphony than he had in his previous efforts. It is reported that he said that he wanted to work out his individual ideas (one of his many talents was for inventing truly memorable melodies) in a new way. This work does so admirably, and gives the impression of an organic unity that obscures its unorthodoxy. Of all his symphonies, this one clearly departs furthest from the Classical tradition and even from the Romantic symphonic structure of Schumann and Brahms. He eventually offered it (perhaps tongue-in-cheek?) as his “thesis” upon being conferred an honorary Doctorate of Music by Cambridge University. The irony of offering such an academically “incorrect” work to this distinguished body as it conferred a major honor upon him seemed to escape notice at the time.

The work was composed at a fast pace even for Dvo?ák, who always wrote quickly. It required only ten days to invent the major ideas, another three weeks to convert them from short score into a formal structure, and another month to complete the finished orchestration. He himself conducted the premiere performance by the Prague National Theater Orchestra three months later, earning much acclaim by audience and critics alike. It is filled with both beautiful melodies and ingenious musical devices. For example, instead of the traditional long introduction he chose to begin with a song-like melody (orchestrated with a lush combination of celli, horns, bassoons and clarinet) that plays itself out completely. The standard formal introduction begins later with a flute solo, which leads to the main thematic material of the first movement, from which he develops the rest of the movement in a relatively normal way.

The slow adagio movement opens with a short fragmentary theme, which develops throughout the entire movement. Initially short, lyrical and pastoral it transforms itself into a truly heroic moment for full brass, before returning to quiet repose. Gradually tension develops, leading to another moment that feels like walking through a dappled forest on a calm, sunny day. Suddenly, the heroic feeling returns and finally dissolves into a quiet calm. All of this is based on the same fragmentary idea, without resort to the “theme and variations” approach. His ability to construct such complex imagery from simple musical elements is one part of Dvo?ák’s genius. The third movement is a simple waltz, as elegant as any of Tchaikovsky’s, but retaining the bucolic feeling of a peasant dance. It, too, features a melody (first presented by the oboe in the middle of the movement) that haunts audiences as they leave the performance. It is the kind of theme that you just can’t get out of your head.

Perhaps the most imaginative writing of all comes in the finale. A solemn trumpet fanfare opens the movement, like the summons to a ceremonial celebration. The orchestra quietly develops a melody that could have come straight out of his Slavonic Dances (it didn’t!) but which sounds eerily reminiscent of the song that opened the first movement. He continues to develop this melody until it breaks into a furious climax, at the height of which Dvo?ák introduces a device never before heard in Romantic-era symphonies: a series of full-volume trills by the French horns. How his “mind’s ear” could have invented this previously unheard sound and compelled him to incorporate it is a mystery, but the effect is brilliant. The rest of the movement brings back images from throughout the symphony – idyllic serenity, heroic climaxes, peasant dances and even the trumpet fanfare and horn trills – weaving them into a tapestry of impressions. The ending stops reverberating before the audience fully captures its essence. It’s the sort of music that you can’t help getting caught up by, and seldom forget from then on.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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