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Program Notes – Nov. 20, 1999

Capriccio Espagnole, op. 34

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov was the youngest son of an aristocratic Russian family (Korsakov) that had years ago added the place-name of their region, Rimsky, to confer a mild distinctiveness to the family name. As a boy, he learned piano only as a pastime to entertain himself, playing transcriptions of operas. His dream was to follow his brother as an officer in the Russian navy, so he enrolled as a Kadet in the naval academy at St. Petersburg. It was here that he heard his first live opera, and he was overwhelmed by the experience. Neither the singing nor the staging caught his attention — it was the glorious sound of a full orchestra (in the pit, no less, where sounds are muffled compared to the concert stage)that captivated him. He fell in love with orchestral music, and it became his new passion. Nevertheless, he completed his naval training and took a commission. After a two year tour of duty, he “pulled some strings” thanks to his family connections, and got himself assigned to a shore assignment. His duties were nominal, requiring only a couple of hours a day, leaving him plenty of free time to study music and learn to compose.

Because he lacked formal training, he would probably have gone into the musical history books as a dilettante, except for all that he accomplished. While a student at the naval academy he had met semi-socially the other musicians (Mussorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev and Cesar Cui) who would eventually be nicknamed the “Mighty Handful”, because of their powerful influence on Russian music. One of the goals of this group was to create a truly Russian music, springing from Russian roots, and free of the influences of German music (which dominated the musical world at the time).

Initially, Korsakov knew next to nothing about music. He gravitated to Balakirev, the only trained musician of the group, who began to tutor Nicolai on the rudiments of music theory — concentrating, of course, on those elements that were “Russian”, and ignoring the established German tradition. As an exercise, Balakirev asked him to finish a symphony that the older composer had started but abandoned, which eventually became Korsakov’s First Symphony. Before he finished it, however, he was shipped out of St. Petersburg on his first naval assignment.

When Korsakov returned to St. Petersburg, Balakirev drew him back into the circle, which had grown influential in his absence. Shortly, he found himself sharing a room with Mussorgsky. The two were forced to share time on the apartment’s piano: Mussorgsky in the morning and Korsakov in the afternoon. As they worked out their compositions, they shared inspirations and ideas, and criticized each other’s works. Eventually, with Balakirev’s help, he won an appointment as Professor of Composition and Instrumentation at St. Petersburg Conservatory, allowing him to leave the navy altogether. This was in spite of his absolute ignorance of many of the fundamental techniques of composition, such as counterpoint. Apparently, in that day as in this, it never hurts to have influential connections. Nevertheless, simply accepting the appointment demonstrated a tremendous self-confidence (not to mention fortitude and Chutspah!)

In spite of his disdain for non-Russian musical traditions, his own later compositions depend heavily on previous developments of the Romantic period in German music. His three orchestral masterworks, Capriccio Espagnole, Scheherezade and Russian Easter Overture, were completed one after another in successive summers, while on vacation from his professorship. After completing them he abandoned purely orchestral composition for the rest of his career, which lasted another twenty years, to concentrate on operas.

Korsakov considered his Capriccio Espagnole to be a study in “virtuoso orchestration”. His description is open to multiple interpretations: several solos require truly virtuosic performance abilities, especially the flute and violin. Perhaps more importantly, the work shows off Korsakov’s own skill in the use of orchestral colorations, so that the virtuosity is in the orchestration itself. The composer was justly proud of all three works, which he recognized as his culminating orchestral achievements. In his autobiography, he wrote that he had “attained virtuosity and sonority without Wagnerian influences … music that was truly Russian”. Even though the setting of the Capriccio is Spanish, and most of the tunes derive from (or emulate) the melodies of Spanish folk music, Korsakov understood perfectly what he was trying to do. The music is unmistakably that of a Russian composer, not a Spaniard or (perish the thought) a German.

Horn Concerto no. 1 in E-flat, op. 11

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

When Franz Strauss’ first wife died, he pondered his financial difficulties as a musician (he was principal hornist in the Court orchestra in Munich) and corrected the situation by marrying the daughter of a prosperous Bavarian brewer. As a result, Richard Strauss was born into a family of means, so that he was free to pursue whatever career he wished. When he showed early creative talents, he was encouraged by his family to compose. Having a wealthy grandfather as patron didn’t hurt. Richard’s op. 1 (an orchestral march written before his teens) was published by one of the most prestigious publishers in Germany – mainly because a proud papa paid the costs, to show off the genius in his family.

Although he mastered traditional music theory, Richard quickly grew beyond it, fascinated by the relatively new field of program music. He adopted the musical language of the Romantic period, with its emphasis on shifting tonalities and expressive instrumental colors. Throughout his son’s career the arch-conservative Franz pleaded with his son to abandon his experiments with polyphony and other modern devices. Instead he urged him to return to the Classical traditions: simple melodies, developed against an unambiguous harmonic background, within a well-organized formal structure, and an overall elegance. Although he loved and respected his father, there is no evidence that Richard paid any attention to this advice, once he reached his own mature style.

Franz Strauss was one of the greatest hornists of his time, and Richard both loved and respected him, so it was natural that his music would feature French horn as it does. It would be natural for the young composer to write a concerto for his father. He had already written a set of variations for horn and a song “I Hear an Alpine Horn Sounding”, with a fiendishly difficult horn obbligato that was obviously intended for his father’s skills. However, the elder Strauss never played either of his son’s horn concerti in public, although he read through them at home with Richard accompanying him on piano. He complained that there were “too many high notes” … an obvious subterfuge, because the concerto was well within the range of things he performed publicly all the time. Likelier, he just didn’t like the structure of his son’s music but wouldn’t say so about a work clearly written with him in mind. In any case, Richard dedicated the score to another virtuoso hornist, Oscar Franz (who also never performed it, ironically).

Strauss specified in the score that it should be played on a Waldhorn, i.e. a valveless natural horn, but the concerto is virtually unplayable on that instrument. The key of the work is E-flat, but almost all hornists play it on a valved double horn in F/B-flat instead of an E-flat horn, which makes the fingerings a bit more difficult. It is perhaps the greatest horn concerto written in modern times. Its musical language is closer to Strauss’ predecessors than to his own mature style, but it still looks forward rather than backward, and it calls on many of the skills needed for the horn parts of modern composers, rather than the elegant stylings of Mozart’s concerti. Although written for the horn, the work transcribes wonderfully for performance on tuba (although it thereby must be played an octave lower, and may require even more virtuosity of the performer). This transcription captures the character of the original perfectly, while displaying the more mellow sound of the tuba. It is, indeed, a treat.

Symphony no. 1 in D-major “Titan”

Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)

Of all the great musicians born in the second half of the nineteenth century, few were as complex (and frequently misunderstood) as Gustav Mahler. It wasn’t until several decades after his death that he took his rightful place as a giant among composers. During his lifetime, he was renowned as a brilliant conductor, but one with a misguided self-image that led him to compose eccentric music in the mistaken belief that it was his true calling. However, from the very beginning his goal in music was to create, not interpret others creations. Even though his genius as an interpreter of others’ music cannot be denied, he himself felt that circumstances forced him to demean himself by conducting — just to “put bread on the table”. His passion was for expression. The only true way to express his deepest creative self was through gigantic orchestral portraits that reflected his conception of the most fundamental truths that guided the course of the universe. Any smaller scope was insufficient.

His giant symphonies — with their strange tendency to jump from the exotic to the commonplace, from the grotesque to the sublime — puzzled audiences, angered the conservative musical establishment and drew the fire of critics. Furthermore, he had made many enemies by his imperious behavior as an operatic conductor. Many of them sought every opportunity to take pot-shots at his creative efforts. Only a few of his closest friends (especially the young conducting prodigy Bruno Walter) recognized the genius to be found in his symphonies and became his lifelong champions. Mahler’s belief in his own art never wavered. Shortly before his death, and aware of the limited time remaining to him, he declared “My time will yet come”. In the last half of the twentieth century, audiences have finally grown to love his works, and they are now frequently the high points of the season for any orchestra which programs them.

Mahler was born into a middle-class Jewish family in a small town in Bohemia, and from his earliest days everyone knew that music would somehow be his life. He taught himself to play piano, and became something of a local prodigy. He won admission to the Vienna Conservatory, where he concentrated at first on piano, but took a few courses in theory and composition as well. However, while in Vienna he was able to hear performances by Franz Liszt and Anton Rubenstein, two of the greatest virtuosi of the age, which changed him dramatically. Throughout his life, Mahler’s critical perception would prove to be impeccable, and this was true even at age eighteen. He compared his current abilities (even granting himself talent for potential improvement) with what he heard, and gave up thoughts of a performing career. Music had already claimed him completely. If he could not perform well enough to meet his own exacting standards, that left conducting or composing as the only two possible paths. He chose composing, but was forced to take up the baton just to support himself.

At the Conservatory, he never completed a single work that he had begun. He often started a piece and then carried it forward until he had learned all that he could from the experience, and then abandoned it. It remained until well after he left Vienna that his creative fires burned brightly enough to compel him to finish a work. Meanwhile, though, his successive positions as conductor taught him music thoroughly, in a way that classes never could. He became a meticulous interpreter of the genius he found in other’s works, and incredibly demanding of his performers. This attention to detail would eventually carry through to his compositions. His scores are annotated with incredibly precise and detailed instructions about how his music is to be played.

However successful he became as a conductor, his ultimate desire was still to compose. Nevertheless, it always seemed to take an emotional upheaval to force him to follow through on his goal. His first three finished compositions all came out of the same scenario: breakup with a woman would plunge him into the depths of despair. When he came out of the depths, he seemed full of creative energy that would prompt him to a flurry of activity that finally produced a finished piece of music. Thus, his loss of a childhood sweetheart (only a deep infatuation, really) led to a completed sketch for Das Klagende Lied. His breakup from a fully involved liaison with a prima donna of the opera company he was currently conducting led to the Songs of a Wayfarer. And recognition that he could not pursue his developing passion for the wife of a friend and patron (who happened to be the grandson of the great German composer Carl Maria von Weber) led to the First Symphony.

Other than music (and women) Mahler’s chief driving passion was for nature. Not the “bucolic, pastoral sounds of the meadow” version of nature, but Nature as a primal force: the universe as a vast canvas for drama. Man, with all his trials and tribulations, is at the center of this vast canvas of nature. Mahler’s symphonies might best be seen as an attempt to evoke the grandeur of his vision of the universe, in a language that must be felt in the soul, it cannot be explained to the mind.

The conception for this symphony began as a symphonic poem, which implied a programme, in the same way as Richard Strauss’ early tone poems. For its first performance, he titled it “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts”. At its second playing, he designated it as his First Symphony, and gave it a subtitle “Titan”. (This was after a novel of the same name by the writer Jean Paul). He later withdrew the title, as well as one movement of the work. For a subsequent performance he authorized the printing of a detailed explanation of the programme, which he also later repudiated. Whether he wrote from a detailed program or not seems irrelevant, for the music speaks directly to the listener, and needs no narrative interpretation.

Mahler’s original titles for the individual movements clearly show a programmatic intent. The first half of the symphony bore the title “From Days of Youth”; its opening movement was designated “Spring Without End” and the frenetic scherzo movement was “Under Full Sail” (a third movement, deleted by Mahler and not played today was titled “Flowers”). The second half of the work was titled “A Human Comedy”, with movements called “Funeral March After the Manner of Caillot”, and “From Inferno to Paradise”. Mahler drew musical materials from a number of sources. The first movement is built around a melody from one of his own Songs of a Wayfarer. The second movement is eerily similar to a movement from a symphony written by his classmate at the Vienna Conservatory, Hans Rott. Mahler never saw the finished manuscript for this movement until long after he had completed the First Symphony. Apparently, he must have heard the melody (or seen sketches) while in Vienna, and pulled them from his subconscious years later.

Inspiration for the third movement was a woodcut entitled “The Hunter’s Funeral”, in which the dead huntsman’s pallbearers are the various animals he hunted. The music is a grotesque parody, based on the children’s song “Brother Martin” (which we know by its French title: Frere Jacques). The opening of the finale was described by Mahler as “a cry from a wounded heart”. Perhaps the sentimentalist in him was responding to the heartbreak of the abandonment of his most recent love.

It seems clear that Mahler intended to evoke something heroic, perhaps the Titan of Jean Paul’s novel (though he denied this) who was torn by cosmic forces before his ultimate triumph-through-death. Mahler’s own words describing the last two movements were: “Both the funeral march and the storm that breaks out immediately afterward strike me as a burning accusation hurled at the Creator … a preliminary vision of triumph, and then we are plunged back into the maelstrom; … the vision returns, its proud fanfares ultimately sweeping the storm away.” Obviously, Mahler himself believed that he was dealing with a subject of vast psychological importance, not a pastiche of musical elements whose sounds he happened to like. His contemporary, the influential critic Max Steinitzer, ended an article on Mahler with a striking description: “Of all the men I have known, Mahler had the greatest power of expression.” In now seems clear that Mahler was right: his time would yet come. It is here, now!

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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