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Program Notes – Nov. 22, 2003

Overture to “The Barber of Seville”

Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1886)

Modern audiences have come to love Rossini’s operas, especially his less serious works. Their rich interplay between the personalities of the characters and the predicaments they get themselves into make them perfect examples of the comic opera. Further, his freely expressive musical treatment makes them the epitome of this genre. His mature style is so well developed that it might come as a surprise to learn that he represents not the peak of a stylistic period, but a transition. In the late eighteenth century the Italian opera buffo was in decline. Its form had been developed in the Baroque and Classical periods, but was no longer the realm of musical geniuses (such as Mozart) but now practiced by forgettable composers who were frequently little more than hack craftsmen. The Romantic period, with its emphasis on expressiveness rather than form was just beginning in the symphonies of Beethoven and the songs of Schubert. The operatic medium needed its geniuses to start it down a corresponding new path. Along came Rossini.

Born into a musical family and gifted with a fine voice, it was a foregone conclusion that he would pursue a musical career. Surprisingly, his muse took him down a path of composing rather than performance. As a young man he had studied traditional musical theory, as would any aspiring musician of the time, performer or otherwise. In his studies, he disdained the formal rules of counterpoint, but he intuitively saw the value of clear partwriting and he mastered the rules of harmony and orchestration. He brought these principles to his operas, even when he ignored many of its other forms and “rules”.

Rossini was hardly the stereotypical struggling artist, torn by emotional turmoil or difficulties dealing with the world. Quite the opposite – he loved life and made a point of living it fully. His robust and jovial nature carried over to his compositions. Music was the means to his ends, and to support his lifestyle he turned out one opera after another, all brilliantly done. His genius was such that he finished his masterpiece The Barber of Seville in only three weeks. A favorite story about Rossini (possibly even true!) concerns a time when he threw open his window to greet a friend passing by, and a gust of wind blew the manuscript of an overture out onto the street below. When his friend began scurrying around chasing the pages, Rossini called for him to stop wasting time and come up to have a glass of wine. “But your work…?” stammered the friend. “Never mind,” retorted the effervescent composer, “I’ll just write it down again.”

From the beginning, he was a consummate composer of overtures, many of which have no musical relationship (through common themes, etc.) to the opera that would follow. Several of these have earned an independent place in the concert hall repertoire. Though hardly his most famous overture (that would be the William Tell Overture – the famous “Lone Ranger” music, played by the ISO a few seasons ago), the Overture to the Barber of Seville is one of the most recognizable of his pieces. As it did for the opera, this spritely overture establishes a buoyant mood to prepare the hall for the serious works to follow.

Symphony no. 5 in c-minor, op. 67

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Beethoven is almost certainly the most admired composer of serious music in the Western culture, and the symphony is often acclaimed as the loftiest form in which a composer can express his musical ideas. If so, then logic implies that many, many people consider Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to be the greatest piece of classical music ever written (subconsciously or otherwise). The four note motive around which the first movement is built (and much of the remainder of the work derived) is universally recognized. Even people who disdain orchestral music – and who probably wouldn’t be caught dead listening to it – know the famous opening: three short notes falling to a long one, repeated twice. The fact that this rhythm corresponds to the letter “v” in the Morse code earned it the nickname of the “Victory Symphony” during the second World War, when it was probably played more often for audiences in the allied nations than in Beethoven’s native Germany!

Beethoven was the first composer to deliberately introduce extramusical meaning into his works, other than operas and vocal compositions. He developed a philosophy that he called the “symphonic ideal” to shape the musical content of his symphonies, but which eventually influenced his approach to almost all forms. Although he never extended it as far as the Romantic era device of a “program” (a story told in music) his goal was to portray something beyond the mere pleasant entertainment of the musical sounds themselves. His Third Symphony, the “Eroica”, was originally intended as a tribute to Napoleon. In it Beethoven tried for the first time to overtly express by the music some of that leader’s indomitable spirit, a truly revolutionary musical intent, which had never been done by previous composers.

The Fifth Symphony carries Beethoven’s symphonic ideal one step further. Although not intended to represent any specific person or event, its character is unmistakable. The opening four-note motive, and its development in the first movement, poses a challenge to be overcome. Beethoven’s biographer says that the composer once remarked that this simple rhythm represented “Fate, knocking at the door.” If, indeed, it was intended to be Fate knocking, then Fate is certainly insistent. Scarecely a single moment can be found in the first movement without that irrepressible motto being set forth somewhere, whether heroically in the horns, solemnly in the low strings or unobtrusively in the woodwinds.

Beethoven never publicly agreed to this interpretation. It isn’t noted anywhere in the original manuscript of the score, nor in any written materials from early performances. Nevertheless, this interpretation fits so well with the rest of the work that the symphony is called the “Schiksal-symphonie” (Fate Symphony) in Germany. If the first movement is the Call of Fate, then the remainder of the work is surely the hero’s answer to the call.

The slow second movement begins with a serene, idyllic melody (Our Hero, unaware that Fate is about to step into his life?). Gradually, the melody works itself up to an intense climax dominated by horns and trumpets. The climax falls short of being truly heroic, however, and the music falls back to its original pastoral, easy-going spirit. Repeatedly, the music alternates between “almost heroic” and uneasily bucolic. Our Hero is clearly established as a man with the capacity for glory, but who might prefer anonymity. The opening rhythm pervades the movement, but the opening theme is never stated directly. Our Hero is about to be confronted.

The third movement opens mysteriously, quietly. Suddenly, the horns interrupt to proclaim destiny’s challenge. The first-movement development of the Fate motive takes over for a while. A brief fugue in the strings (perhaps representing the Hero struggling futilely without clear purpose against Fate’s challenge) leads to a period of quiet mystery. A throbbing rhythm in the tympani creates a dark tension leading insistently up to the beginning of the finale. Suddenly, the brass burst forth gloriously with a three note upward (!) theme – Our Hero finally rises to meet the challenge of Fate. (This, by the way, was the very first use of trombones in a symphony by a major composer. Another first for Beethoven!) The rest of the movement plays itself out in triumph, not necessarily of Good over Evil, but of will and purpose over acceptance and complacency. Small wonder that it would eventually become known as the “Victory” symphony.

Piano Concerto no. 2 in c-minor, op. 18

Serge Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)

Serge Rachmaninoff was born into Russian aristocracy, and in spite of his obvious musical interests would probably have entered a “noble” profession befitting his station. However, his dissolute father managed to squander a fortune and then abandoned his family, thus ending any hopes for an expensive gentrified education for young Serge. His mother moved the family to St. Petersburg, and managed to secure for him (at age 12!) a scholarship so that he could pursue his obvious musical talent at the famous Conservatory. Like most young boys, Serge preferred “fun” to “study”. Lacking real discipline and supervision, he spent three irresponsible years skipping classes, faking grades on report cards and making little musical progress. Finally his cousin, a rising young pianist, declared that the only man who could do anything with such an undisciplined brat was his own teacher, Nicolai Sverev. Serge was immediately shipped off to Moscow, to board with Sverev who was intended to teach him discipline as well as piano technique.

The three-year apprenticeship marked Rachmaninoff’s character indelibly, for life. Zverev – for whom the term “severe” would be a moderate understatement – tyrannized his students, especially those who had any talent. The young man who eventually left Sverev’s household for the Moscow Conservatory no longer lacked direction, but his boyish exuberance was now imprisoned in a locked chamber of his psyche. Even though he won the highest honors possible at the Conservatory (first prizes in both piano performance and composition) he remained insecure through the rest of his life. These insecurities often interfered with his creativity, and he was publicly aloof and reserved. Only in his music did his native sensitivity and passion show through. His compositions range from lyric beauty, through outright sensuality, to dark melancholia. But they are always a deliberately serious outpouring of expression, seldom casually joyous.

The Second Piano Concerto is probably his best know, best loved work. It is considered the epitome of the romantic piano concerto by most audiences. Strangely, it emerged only after a long withdrawal from composing. His first piano concerto (written while at the Conservatory) had been hailed as the first mark of a rising star, and left the public waiting anxiously for his next major work. However, the premiere of the First Symphony was a disaster, and the reception shattered the composers confidence. He did not attempt composition for three years, instead supporting himself as a performing pianist and taking up the baton as conductor. Only after consulting a renowned psychiatrist (who reputedly tried the newly invented technique of hypnosis as part of his therapy) did Serge’s confidence begin to return. The result was the Second Piano Concerto, which immediately won back the acclaim he had lost. From that time, all of his compositions were successful, and well received at first hearing!

The concerto itself, contains some of the best known melodies he ever created. The modern soft-rock star Nilsson stole Rachmaninoff melodies for many of his works, for example the verse melodies to “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again (from the second symphony) and “All by Myself” (which you will hear in the slow movement of this concerto!). Decades ago, the central melody from the last movement of this concerto became the American popular song “Full Moon and Empty Arms”. The reason his music was so frequently stolen was its inherent passion. This concerto – from its quiet beginning in the solo piano (without the obligatory orchestral introduction found in so many concertos) right up to its glorious finale – exudes passion. The exuberance and intensity that Zverev had managed to lock away turned out to be irrepressible, and this work was its first true musical expression.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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