Overture to “William Tell”
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1886)
Gioacchino Rossini hardly fits the stereotype of the genius composer. He was not a “struggling artist”. He was not torn by emotional turmoil. He didn’t even die young. Rather, he loved life and lived it fully, his robust and jovial nature carrying over into his works. As a young man, music was a means to his own ends. To support his buoyant lifestyle he churned out one opera after another, all brilliantly executed. By age forty he had completed more than three-dozen operas, nearly all successful. His music brought him wealth, but his health deteriorated. In mid-life, at the peak of his popularity, he abandoned composing altogether, in spite of impassioned pleas of his adoring public. Although he resumed composing late in his life (giving him essentially a second career, aesthetically), he never wrote another opera.
Modern audiences have come to love them, especially his less serious works. Their rich interplay between characters and situation, together with a freely expressive musical treatment, make them the epitome of comic operas. They are among the most frequently performed, staples of the operatic repertoire. However, his best operatic work might have been his most serious, as well as his last: William Tell.
Based upon the legend of the champion archer who was compelled under order of the king to shoot an apple from the top of his son’s head, the work exudes drama as his earlier operas had bubbled over with comedy. He considered it his best work, so it is strange that the full opera is performed infrequently, though it has not disappeared from the repertoire. The music of its overture, however, contains the most famous notes he ever wrote (thanks to Hollywood, television, and that famous Texas law officer who wore a mask and fired silver bullets!)
The overture, however, contains much more music than that one famous theme. It opens with a virtuosic segment for celli and double basses (who usually play as a single section in unison, except for occasional solos by the principal player). In a true tour de force, Rossini divides the passage into eight separate parts – in a small orchestra, this forces every player to be a soloist!
This is followed by possibly the most graphic description of a thunderstorm to be found in orchestra literature, worthy of any tone poem ever written to express a musical image. The English horn and flute sing out a lyrical repose – the “calm after the storm” which always seems to follow this kind of weather.
The calm is broken by a heroic trumpet entrance (announcing, of course, the entrance of the hero). It is one of the few passages in music that is recognized by every listener after hearing only its first four notes! The remainder of the overture is possibly the most vigorous, exciting music Rossini ever wrote. It is certainly his best known.
Violin Concerto in e-minor, op. 64
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Felix Mendelssohn’s early life doesn’t follow the usual path taken by most prodigies. His father, a successful banker and importer, had no need to exploit his son’s talent. Though aware of Felix’s abilities, he was nevertheless more concerned that his son would develop fully into a well-rounded gentleman. A truly well mannered young boy should learn to appreciate beauty wherever he found it – literature, art, philosophy, as well as music. More importantly, he should fit naturally into the aristocracy, in keeping with the family’s wealth. Music was to be an avocation, not a career.
In spite of his father’s wishes, Felix knew where his genius lay, and insisted on music. Eventually, Dad gave in. The elder Mendelssohn then turned his power and wealth to promoting his son’s musical career, which immediately flourished. Felix became not only a successful composer and conductor, but also one of the strongest musical influences on the business of music. He became a champion of Schubert, discovering the manuscripts of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, and organizing their successful posthumous premieres. He also essentially rescued Bach from oblivion.
Until anti-Semitism hit the German musical scene (Mendelssohn’s family had converted to Christianity, but he was still stigmatized as originally Jewish) Felix was one of the most influential musicians in Germany, and his works were frequently performed and highly regarded. For a long time his music was belittled, but its elegant perfection is now once again admired.
Besides his keyboard skills, Felix early on developed an uncanny understanding of how the aesthetic qualities of music related to its structure. He could easily analyze what was right or wrong with a piece of music – why it did or didn’t “work”. This might be explained as sheer intellectual power, for the boy was a genius in the traditional sense. More important, however, was his creative spark. His early music is more original than Mozart’s had been at the same age.
Mendelssohns’ muse is a true synthesis of the Classic and Romantic ideals. He crafted his works very carefully, in the classic tradition, and generally adhered to its structural forms. A perfectionist, he carefully revised his compositions until they met his own high artistic standards before releasing them to the world. However, he used this careful Classical craftsmanship for extremely expressive purposes, as demanded by the Romantic era. His music encompasses many moods – from dark, brooding tension through gay festivity and graceful elegance, to soaring jubilation.
Unfortunately for the musical world, Mendelssohn died at an early age (as had the man he championed so vigorously – Schubert). The Violin Concerto was one of his very last works. Its four movements, which flow one into another played without pause, is essentially on the bright side of his spectrum. It requires virtuosity, but is much more than a mere showpiece to display the soloist’s skills. The orchestral accompaniment is integral for its success. It has never fallen from favor like his other compositions, and is one of the most frequently played violin concerti.
Symphony no. 3 in c-minor, op. 78 “Organ Symphony”
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Late in the nineteenth century, by the time that Berlioz had finally been recognized as a genius, the established composers in French circles were still ultra-conservative. Debussy was being reviled for his modernism, Franck was derided as a pretentious mystic and Camille Saint- Saëns was the recognized leader of the “conservative establishment”. We now recognize how important the experimentation that was beginning to take place would be to the ultimate development of music in the twentieth century. Because Saint-Saëns led the resistance to these experiments, many modernists now tend to regard him as old fashioned and unprogressive, and consign much of his music to the unflattering category of “fashionable but unimaginative”.
Though perhaps it is appropriate to condemn Saint-Saëns himself for his reactionism, it would be a mistake to consider his music unworthy because of it. He was a consummate craftsman, and wrote music of beauty and power. His piano and violin concerti are staples of the repertoire, and an excerpt from his opera “Samson and Delila” (the Bacchanale) is so familiar that it has almost been relegated to the realm of “Pops” orchestral compositions. One particular work, however, stands out as worthy of comparison to the best achievements of his progressive contemporaries: the Organ Symphony. Indeed, it deserves to be compared to the other great symphonies of musical history, rather than considered a fashionable relic of a dead-end movement.
Some scholars say that this symphony, his third, draws more on the German tradition than any other of his major works. This certainly is not apparent in the overt instrumental sounds, for this work displays the transparency and elegance that abound in French orchestral compositions of the time. It is likewise not obvious from the fiendishly difficult rhythmic notations that he used to express otherwise straightforward themes (the actual beat in the musical bars is not where it sounds like to the audience!) These rhythms were unlike anything originating in either Berlin or Vienna at that time. Nor is it the formal structure, which in spite of its grandiose architecture hardly matches that of Brahms. Perhaps it is in the “noble character” of the music, which displays at times a relentless power not seen in any of the rest of his works.
Although subtitled “Organ”, this symphony does not feature that magnificent instrument as its focal point. Rather, it calls upon it to provide colors and character that are simply unavailable from the traditional orchestra. The work can be considered a traditional four-movement Romantic symphony, although Saint-Saëns combines both the first two movements and the last two, indicating only two giant sections in the score. After a brief introduction, the strings enter with a musical motif that relates closely to the “Dies Irae” theme so prominently featured by many composers throughout the years. This theme provides inspiration for the entire remaining work.
The first entrance of the organ is delayed until the middle of the first section (beginning of the “second movement”), and even then is barely audible, a pianissimo whisper. It fades into the background for a while, resurfacing only for a brief section when it plays a sweet melody that also occurs in strings, winds and middle brass. Though it contributes enormously to the color, the organ never plays anything loud. Finally, the first section dies away quietly, and apparently the organ disappears with it. (Only apparently – beware the surprise coming later!)
The second section (third movement) begins with a vigorous and agitated string figure, derived from the main theme of the beginning. Frenetic and powerful, it grows into an almost demonic intensity. To further spice up the color, Saint-Saëns introduces the piano (played by two players at once) with a rippling counterpoint to the strings and winds. The movement dances energetically, until it finally seems to “wind down”, in an almost exhausted moment of repose. Suddenly, the organ demonstrates why it is called the king of instruments, entering with a thunderous chord that surprises even those who know that it’s coming. This chord (interestingly, almost the exact chord with which it made its whispered entrance originally) heralds the beginning of the finale fourth movement.
Saint-Saëns “pulls out all the stops” in the orchestra as well as on the organ. He once again calls on the piano’s rippling colors as background for the first statement of the final theme. It, too, is derived from the Dies Irae that inspired the opening. Both the organ and the piano provide color and excitement, but the climax is reserved for the orchestra itself (the piano doesn’t even play, at the end). The ever-present theme gradually grows from lyrical and breezy to irresistible and unstoppable. The mighty ending proves to the world that “French” certainly doesn’t mean “insipid”, when applied to the symphony. Gallic pride shines out in that headlong rush to a brash, awe-inspiring final chord: an exclamation point to a truly dramatic essay.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly