COMING TO AMERICA CONCERT NOTES

KORNGOLD

The son of the famous music critic Julius Korngold, Erich Korngold began his career in the early twentieth century as a wunderkind composer. He played his cantata Gold for Mahler who recognized his genius and sent him to Alexander Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler’s former teacher and brother-in-law of Schoenberg for orchestration lessons. His Piano Sonata was performed by Artur Schnabel all over Europe. Upon hearing his first orchestral works – the Schauspiel Ouvertüre (1911) and the Sinfonietta (1912) – Richard Strauss remarked, “One’s first reaction that these compositions are by an adolescent boy are those of awe and fear.” Likewise, his one act opera Violanta (1916) impressed Puccini. His early success was crowned by his full length opera Die tote Stadt (1920) which was premiered simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne.

Max Reinhardt, with whom he had collaborated on a staging of Die Fledermaus in 1928, invited Korngold to Hollywood in 1934. He remained in Hollywood – becoming a US citizen in 1943 – until after the Second World War. He earned two Oscars for the film scores to Robin Hood and Anthony Adverse. He suffered the fate of many child prodigies and was unfairly characterized as going “from Genius to Talent,” having become a composer of mere movie music. Just as the music of J.S. Bach was considered old-fashioned when he wrote it, so was Korngold’s lush late romantic style. The Symphony in F Sharp, Op. 40 (1951-2) was his last great full symphonic work.

Korngold’s wife related that he remarked, “From the time I was a boy I knew I would not make it beyond Opus 42.” While there was some truth to his prediction, if his movie scores are counted, he produced many more than 42 works.

Korngold’s final orchestral works were the Theme and Variations and Straussiana (on unfamiliar themes by Johann Strauss). They were written for American school orchestras on commission from an American music publisher.

The Theme and Variations begins with the theme simply presented by a flute over a serene background. The theme was composed by Korngold, but he directed in the score that it should be played in the manner of an Irish folk tune.

The theme is followed by seven clearly delineated variations.

·       Allegretto (the theme)
·       Pochissimo piu animato (1st variation)
·       Piu mosso (2nd)
·       L’istesso tempo (3rd) also titled scherzando
·       Meno. cantabile e grazioso (4th)
·       Allegro molto (5th)
·       Molto meno mosso, lento (6th)
·       Marcia (7th)

The first variation is slightly faster in which the notes of the theme are repeated twice in the violins. The entire brief variation is repeated. The “Più mosso” variation finds the theme presented as sixteenth notes in the strings amid interjections from the horn. The third variation stays in this faster tempo using the dotted rhythm from Beethoven’s Ninth. The pace is calmer in the sings and graceful fourth variation where the theme in mainly in the strings but each woodwind has a comment. Things brighten again in the Allegro molto fifth variation where the theme is again in the strings with brief interjections from the flutes. The tempo and mood of the sixth variation is contrastingly very slow with impassioned string phrased punctuated by a rising clarinet. The final Marcia movement recalls the heroic style of Korngold’s movie scores, where one might imagine Errol Flynn dashing through Sherwood Forrest.

MENDELSSOHN

Mendelssohn intended this symphony, at once academic and programmatic, to commemorate the tercentenary of the Augsburg Confession by which the Protestant faith had been defined in 1530 and the Lutheran Church officially established. But he found little enthusiasm for this notion in Berlin, where the celebration was to take place, and the repertoire eventually chosen included nothing by Mendelssohn. Dissatisfied with certain elements of the work, he laid it aside after the first performance and never returned to it. (The first publication was more than two decades after his death.) In Paris, too, there was discontent: The Société des Concerts du Conservatoire dropped the symphony from an announced program after one rehearsal, explaining that it was too studied, too formal, and lacking in melody.

However, the “Reformation” Symphony affords an instructive look at Mendelssohn’s compositional priorities during a time when he was under the spell of Lutheran church music. His performance of the St. Matthew Passion, on 11 March 1829, had for example led him to a systematic analysis of Bach’s styles and procedures. The obvious genuflections are in the use of Martin Luther’s chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God) in the finale and the various occurrences of the “Dresden” Amen. But there are other allusions to past practice as well: the slow movement strongly suggests a Baroque arioso, and there is something of the chorale prelude in the finale. Likewise, the harmonic relationships are grand and churchly, as when the last movement opens in G and continues in D in the fashion of a sweeping Amen.

The work opens quietly as a brooding melodic motive begins in the lower strings and spreads in layers through the orchestra. The motive changes shape in the woodwinds to become a kind of fanfare, answered by the Dresden Amen in the strings. With the sudden shift into minor, rapid duple meter, and a theme born of the fanfares, a sonata-allegro structure has begun. It is a long, tempestuous movement, possibly meant to suggest thoughts of the Protestant wards. First group, bridge, and second group join seamlessly and with little or no repose; the restless development, concerning itself almost exclusively with the first theme, builds to a great climax with trumpets and drums and downward lunge of strings. At this juncture, the Dresden Amen settles over and quiets the fury. The recapitulation, as though humbled by this piety, begins softly, unlike the exposition, and is quite brief.

A light minuet (or scherzo) and trio follows here, rather than in the customary third-movement position, as though to offset the rigors of the long movement just concluded. As in the “Italian” Symphony, Mendelssohn is given to digression, such that the second phrases of both minuet and trio leave more the impression of following one’s nose than close adherence to a given form. The brevity of the third movement, a simple rounded aria form for first violins and rudimentary accompaniment in the supporting strings, suggests such Baroque antecedents as the slow movements of the Bach orchestral suites. When, in the final bars, a melody from the first movement is quoted, we can see in retrospect how the rhythmic and melodic character has been derived from material that has come before.

This proceeds without pause to the chorale Ein feste Burg as slow introduction to the last movement. The first four notes of the chorale should bring to mind the fanfares of the opening movement, for the two figures are inversions of each other. A 6/8 Vivace on phrases from the chorale effects the transition into the Allegro maestoso, clearly meant to be in the tradition of the heroic finale to Beethoven’s Fifth. We are never far from the chorale, which is treated contrapuntally in the development section and then in purest homophony for the statement that brings the symphony to its majestic end.

DVORÁK

“As a solo instrument [the cello] isn’t much good. Its middle register is fine—that’s true—but the upper voice squeaks and the lower growls. The finest solo instrument, after all, is—and will remain—the violin. I have also written a cello concerto, but am sorry to this day I did so, and I never intend to write another.” So said Dvořák late in life—surprising sentiments, for his cello concerto ranks among his greatest and most popular works. He began writing it late in 1894—worn down, he said, by the pestering of a cellist friend, and recently inspired by Victor Herbert’s cello concerto. He completed the work in February 1895, in New York, but in June, back in Bohemia, he made revisions, including a deeply poetic new ending that he likened to “a sigh”. (It was motivated by the recent death of his beloved sister-in-law, to whom he also paid tribute in the impassioned middle section of the Adagio movement.) Dvořák conducted the première, in London, on March 19, 1896.

Although the soloist is backed by a large orchestra, Dvořák sidesteps problems of balance with great imagination; he explores an impressive range of textures and tone colors, yet the scoring often has the subtlety and transparency of chamber music. The work has the drama and rhetoric and interplay of forces of a true concerto, even if, by contemporary standards, there is little dazzle (and no cadenza) in the solo part: Dvořák treats the cello more as a singer than as a virtuoso, only most obviously in the gorgeous outpouring of song in the Adagio.

Picturesque and emotionally direct, the concerto alludes throughout to folk music, whether the mood is pastoral or driven. Still, this is a work of symphonic ambition, in which Dvořák handles Classical forms with confidence, ingenuity, and flexibility. Each movement is rich in themes yet evolves organically, as Dvořák indulges his gift for thematic variation and development: like Brahms, his hero and champion, he was scarcely capable of repeating an idea without showing it in some surprising and profound new light.

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