CONCERT NOTES

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN
 

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SCHUBERT

Helmina von Chézy (née Wilhelmina Christiana Klencke, 1783-1856) was an ambitious but not very gifted writer whose name is remembered because of her excellent taste in music and her persuasiveness with two of the great composers of her time. She wrote the libretto for Carl Maria von Weber's opera Euryanthe, and it was while preparing for the premiere of that work in Vienna in October 1823, that she got hold of Schubert and persuaded him to compose incidental music for her play Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern ("Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus"), which opened two months later (December 20). Weber's opera actually enjoyed a successful premiere, though Chézy's unfortunate text kept it from circulating much after that. Rosamunde, however, was hopeless from the outset, and disappeared after only two performances; Schubert's contribution was the only part of that enterprise to survive, and it continues to be performed and enjoyed on its own. Posterity, then, may be generous to Helmina von Chézy for the music she brought into being, if not for her own creative efforts. It may be noted that about a month before his death Schubert set one of her poems in one of his last and most remarkable songs, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen ("The Shepherd on the Rock"), an extended piece with clarinet obbligato.

Curiously, the best-known part of the Rosamunde music, the overture that opens the present concerts, was not performed with the play. Under the pressure of his two-week deadline to compose the incidental music (three choruses, three entr'actes, a song, two pieces of ballet music), Schubert did not try to write a new overture, but used the one he had composed the previous year for his opera Alfonso und Estrella. Since that opera had not been performed (it did not reach the stage until 1854), the overture was new to the public in 1823, but when the Rosamunde was published (as late as 1891) as Op. 26, it was not with the Alfonso und Estrella Overture, which had actually introduced the play in the theater, but with a still earlier one which, as noted above, Schubert had composed in 1820 for a different play by a different writer, called The Magic Harp – said to have been even more of a mess than Rosamunde, and even more quickly forgotten. Portions of this overture, in fact, had appeared in a still earlier work, one of the two Overtures in the Italian Style Schubert composed in 1817 (the one in D major, D. 590, which cites a tune from Rossini's opera Tancredi).

Whatever its origins and by any name, this is one of Schubert's finest orchestral pieces, filled with ingratiating tunes and demonstrating his characteristic warm-heartedness and good humor in a masterly utilization of the orchestra's resources which he did not surpass even in his glorious final symphony.

(Richard Freed)

Mozart

Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) is one of Mozart's most popular operas. It is based on infidelity, but the women remain steadfast, and it is only the men who are lecherous, so it didn't raise the indignation occasioned by his other opera on that topic, Così fan tutte, where the women are unfaithful.

Figaro is the barber of Seville (subject of a later opera by Rossini, and still other operas by lesser composers), who is about to marry Susanna. They are both in the service of Count Almaviva, who demands his droit du seigneur, the custom that allows the lord the right to spend the first night with the bride of any of his retainers. Neither Figaro nor Susanna is happy with this plan, nor is the Countess, who loves her husband despite his Zeus complex. To thwart the Count's plans, the women disguise themselves as each other, and through a series of plot twists, succeed in making fools out of all the men. They manage to trick the count into renouncing the droit du seigneur, whereupon there is a sigh of relief from the entire town.

Giunse alfin il momento... followed by the aria, Deh, vieni, non tardar....

Susanna, disguised as the Countess, realizes that Figaro is watching her, thinking that she is planning to "get it on" with the Count, and decides to taunt him, by singing of her passion for him without naming him. He thinks she is singing of the Count, when she is in fact singing of him.

Come now, my darling, no more delaying,
Come and answer the call of love.
Before heaven's torch shines bright in the sky,
While the night is still dark and the world at rest.

Here the brook is babbling, and the breezes are playing,
and their sweet sounds refresh my heart.

Here the flowers are laughing, and the grass is cool:
Here everything welcomes the pleasures of love.

Come now, my dear one: and among these sheltered trees
I'll crown your brow with roses.

(James R.C. Adams)

Beethoven

The composer's last piano concerto dates from the beginning of May 1809, when, with Napoleon's army besieging Vienna, the Austrian Imperial family and all of the court, including Beethoven’s pupil, friend, and benefactor, Archduke Rudolph, fled the city. On May 11 the French artillery, which commanded the heights of the surrounding countryside and had penetrated outlying portions of the city proper, was activated. Beethoven’s house stood perilously close to the line of fire.

Those who could not – or, like Beethoven, would not – leave sought shelter underground. Beethoven found a temporary haven in the cellar of his brother's house. Imagine the composer crouching there, with heaven knows how many other frightened souls, trying to shield his already irreparably damaged ears from the din of volley after volley.

Once the bombardment had ceased and the Austrian forces had surrendered, the occupiers imposed a "residence tax" on the Viennese. The composer, on whom a sufficiently heavy financial burden had been placed by the departure of those who would guarantee his income, described "a city filled with nothing but drums, cannon, marching men, and misery of all sorts."

After the summer, Beethoven was able to get away from the city and return to composing, producing back-to-back masterpieces in the "heroic" key of E-flat, the present Piano Concerto and the "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74. The grim experiences of the preceding months had not diminished his creative powers.

With many of his circle back in Vienna at the beginning of 1810, by which time a general armistice had been signed, life was returning to a semblance of normalcy, the French uniforms and the sound of the French language in the streets notwithstanding. There was, however, no opportunity to present the new concerto. That had to wait until the following year, and then not in Vienna but in Leipzig, with one Friedrich Schneider as soloist. Beethoven, who had written his four previous piano concertos for his own performance, was by now too deaf to perform with orchestra.

For the occasion of the Vienna premiere in February 1812 the soloist was Beethoven's prize pupil, Carl Czerny. Interestingly, the concerto itself failed to make much of an impression, largely, it would seem, because of the nature of the audience, the Society of Noble Ladies of Charity, more receptive to the historic tableaux vivants that shared the bill with Beethoven. The one press review that has survived, from the periodical Thalia, took note of that fact: "Beethoven, full of confidence in himself, never writes for the multitude. He demands understanding and feeling, and because of the intenational difficulties, he can receive these only at the hands of the connoisseurs, who are not to be found at such functions." Nonetheless it was at that same concert that one connoisseur, a French army officer, supposedly called this "an emperor among concertos" (aloud, in the auditorium?). Although this is often cited as a source of the nickname, verification is lacking. It is more likely that "Emperor" was the brainchild of an early publisher. Whatever its origin, the sobriquet seems apt for music of such imperious grandeur.

Here, Beethoven is no longer writing up to his own lofty standards as a performer, but for the supervirtuoso of the following generation – personified by Czerny. Yet while the projection of power is among the composer's aims, overt display is not, with nothing resembling a solo cadenza in sight. With the "Emperor" Beethoven created a truly symphonic concerto.

(Herbert Glass)

Mahler

In August 1886, the distinguished conductor Arthur Nikisch, later music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, appointed the 26-year-old Gustav Mahler as his assistant at the Leipzig Opera. At Leipzig, Mahler met Carl von Weber, grandson of the composer, and the two worked on a new performing edition of the virtually forgotten Weber opera

Die drei Pintos (“The Three Pintos,” two being impostors of the title character). Following the premiere of Die Drei Pintos, on January 20, 1888, Mahler attended a reception in a room filled with flowers. This seemingly beneficent image played on his mind, becoming transmogrified into nightmares and waking visions, almost hallucinations, of himself on a funeral bier surrounded by floral wreaths.

The First Symphony was completed in March 1888, and its successor was begun almost immediately. Mahler, spurred by the startling visions of his own death, conceived the new work as a tone poem entitled Totenfeier (“Funeral Rite”). The title was apparently taken from the translation by the composer’s close friend Siegfried Lipiner, titled

Totenfeier, of Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish epic Dziady. Though he inscribed his manuscript, “Symphony in C minor/First Movement,” Mahler had no idea at the time what sort of music would follow Totenfeier, and he considered allowing the movement

to stand as an independent work.

The next five years were ones of intense professional and personal activity for Mahler. He resigned from the Leipzig Opera in May 1888 and applied for posts in Karlsruhe, Budapest, Hamburg and Meiningen. To support his petition for this last position, he wrote to Hans von Bülow, director at Meiningen until 1885, to ask for his recommendation, but the letter was ignored. Richard Strauss, however, the successor to Bülow at Meiningen, took up Mahler’s cause on the evidence of his talent furnished by Die Drei Pintosand his growing reputation as a conductor of Mozart and Wagner. When Strauss showed Bülow the score for the Weber/Mahler opera, Bülow responded caustically, “Be it Weberei or Mahlerei [puns in German on ‘weaving’ and ‘painting’], it makes no difference to me. The whole thing is a pastiche, an infamous, out-of-date bagatelle. I am simply nauseated.” Mahler, needless to say, did not get the job at Meiningen, but he was awarded the position at Budapest, where his duties began in October 1888.

In 1891, Mahler switched jobs once again, this time leaving Budapest to join the prestigious Hamburg Opera as principal conductor. There he encountered Bülow, who was director of the Hamburg Philharmonic concerts. Bülow had certainly not forgotten his earlier low estimate of Mahler the composer, but after a performance of Siegfriedhe allowed that “Hamburg has now acquired a simply first-rate opera conductor in Mr. Gustav Mahler.” Encouraged by Bülow’s admiration of his conducting, Mahler asked for his comments on the still-unperformed Totenfeier. Mahler described their encounter: “When I played my Totenfeier for Bülow, he fell into a state of extreme nervous tension, clapped his hands over his ears and exclaimed, ‘Beside your music, Tristan sounds as simple as a Haydn symphony! If that is still music then I do not understand a single thing about music!’ We parted from each other in complete friendship, I, however, with the conviction that Bülow considers me an able conductor but absolutely hopeless as a composer.”

(Dr. Richard E. Rodda)