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Program Notes – Nov. 8, 2014

Overture to “Il Viaggio a Reims”, op. 11

Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868)

Modern audiences have come to love Rossini’s operas, especially his less serious works. Their rich interplay between characters and situations make them the epitome of comic opera. So well developed is his style that it is surprising to learn that he composed not at the peak of a musical period, but during a transition. In the late eighteenth century the Italian opera buffo was in decline. Its form had matured in the Baroque and Classical periods, but now its composers were little more than hack craftsmen. The Romantic period, which would emphasize expression above form, was barely born in the symphonic music of Beethoven and the songs of Schubert. The opera needed its own genius to start it down a corresponding new path. Along came Rossini.

Rossini was hardly the stereotypical artist, torn by emotional turmoil and unable to deal with the world. Rather, he lived life to the fullest, his robust and jovial nature carrying over to his works. Music was the means to his ends, and to support his lifestyle he churned out one opera after another, all brilliantly executed. His genius was such that he finished his masterpiece “The Barber of Seville” in only three weeks.

The opera “The Voyage to Reims” was unusual in his output. It was not composed as a commercial showpiece to draw crowds and fill the composer’s coffers to support his lifestyle. It was written to commemorate a specific event: the coronation of the French king Charles the Tenth in Reims, France. The opera was first staged in Paris in 1825, and never made it into the repertoire. Its original manuscript was lost, until the score was reassembled (presumably from the instrumental parts and other fragments) in the 1970s, which led to its first modern performance in 1984. Interestingly, the reconstructed score did not include an overture.

However, many years earlier a work had emerged that was published as Overture to the Voyage to Reims, in a reconstruction by the Italian composer Giuseppe Piccioli. It was presented in a concert performance not related to the opera itself in 1938 at La Scala, under the baton of Richard Strauss, and was an immediate success. It is not clear whether this was an erroneous attribution by Piccioli, or a ploy to draw interest. Whichever, it entered the concert repertoire as a Rossini overture and has been frequently performed. It was only when the opera was reconstructed that it became clear that the themes from the Overture were not related to the original opera. However, many of the overtures to his other operas were also independent of the thematic material of the opera itself. Thus, it is not clear whether this might have been the original overture, somehow rediscovered by Piccioli, or a reconstruction of some completely different work composed by Rossini. In any event, it is widely acclaimed as one of the showiest and best of the “Rossini Overtures”, and deserves its place in the concert-hall repertory, whatever might have been its origin.

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in d-minor

Édouard Lalo (1823 – 1892)

Édouard Lalo was a French composer of Spanish descent, so one might expect his works to reflect either the elegance and emotion of his French compatriots, or else the festivity and passion of the distinctive Spanish style. However, Lalo himself admired the drama and formal structure of the German composers, and most of his major works are cast in their mold. His greatest art is neither the song nor the dance, but rather the dramatic essay. Even when he draws on the idioms and moods of another culture, as he did in the Symphonie Espagnole, his instrumental works are built around the structure rather than programmatic intent.

His parents originally encouraged his musical interests, and as a boy he studied violin and cello in the Conservatory in Lille (his birthplace). But his father eventually pushed him toward a military career, against which he rebelled. He left is home at age sixteen, moving to Paris to follow his musical dreams. Here he improved his performing skills and learned enough theory to get by. His earliest attempts at composing were mostly songs and small works for chamber groups which attracted little interest. In his thirties he gave up composition altogether and concentrated on teaching and his performing career. However, in his mid-forties his muse returned and he resumed writing on a much larger scale.

Although he composed for a variety of instrumental forms (including three operas, a symphony and almost two dozen chamber pieces) Lalo’s best works were for soloist and orchestra. His popular violin showpiece, the Symphonie Espagnole, was an immediate success and drew attention to him as an important ‘new’ composer in his own time. It has earned a firm place in the repertoire, and is considered one of the showiest violin concerti. However, his other major work the Cello Concerto (written immediately after the Symphonie) is less frequently performed. It is, however, just as fine a work and deserves to be heard more often. The solo part is extremely virtuosic, and the orchestra is called upon for much more than merely background accompaniment. It opens with power, and closes with exuberance. The moments in between range from finesse, to introspection, from cleverness to showiness. It warrants ranking alongside the other great cello concerti of the romantic era, and performance by many more orchestras and virtuoso soloists. We are pleased to present it today.

Symphony no. 1 in c-minor, op. 68

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Brahms’ first symphony is arguably the finest first symphony ever written. Though a case can be made for several other composers, none of them waited until he was at the peak of his powers before attempting a symphony, as did Brahms. A true Classicist, writing in the Romantic era, he respected formal structure over rhapsodic freedom. He understood perfectly well the advances in harmonic language that had developed during the Romantic era, and could use them as well as any other composer. But, even though he believed in emotional content, he felt it served music best when it was presented within a carefully organized intellectual framework. His goal was to deliberately consolidate the advances of Romanticism into what he considered the bedrock of music – Classical structure, whose pinnacle was the symphony.

Furthermore, he revered Beethoven. Brahms knew that he was already being compared to the giant in whose footsteps he followed, and waited to write his first symphony until he thought his skills were up to the task. His previous attempts at a symphony had evolved into different works. (The First Piano Concerto and the two Serenades are considered by some to be abortive starts towards a symphony, which turned into something else). Aside from the failed attempts, Symphony no. 1 took him about ten years from first thematic inspiration to completion.

The work itself shows Brahms’ genius in that aspect of musical theory known as development. The melodic materials of the symphony are generally straightforward. Most early themes are short, and often reduced to fragments. Not until the famous song-like theme of the last movement is one of these fragments expanded into what seems like a truly finished melody. What sets Brahms apart from lesser composers is his ability to work with these fragments and short themes. Transformation, key modulation, juxtaposition, recapitulation – he used all the formal techniques of the Classical era. But he uses the as building blocks – raw granitic stones from which he erects a cathedral. And after hoisting each block into place he polishes it until the seams fit so tightly that one sees the structure as a whole, not the sum of its parts.

This is not to say that Brahms cannot make his music expressive. Practically all of the moods available in sound can be found in this symphony somewhere: heroism (note the use of the brass in brief flashes in the first movement), serenity (the famous cello song of the finale), lightheartedness (the scherzo), melancholy (the slow second movement), solemnity (trombones in the finale) and grandeur (the overall effect of the finale, itself). All can be found in this inspired work. He even takes the commonplace and elevates it into the sublime (the famous French horn passage, based on the Westminster Cathedral chimes, found in the last movement). Yet throughout all of this, he makes the emotions serve the music rather than the reverse.

Brahms was the last of his kind, a composer fifty years after his natural time, but with all the tools of his actual time. Because he came along when he did, he culminates Classicism in a way that Beethoven – the radical innovator that he was – never quite could. In the end, Brahms had no reason to fear comparison to his musical idol.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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