CONCERT NOTES

Innocence and Experience

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Guest Artist

Keeley Brooks, violin

Mozart

Symphony No. 35, in D major, “Haffner”

The music of the Haffner symphony was originally composed as a Serenade to be performed on the occasion of the ennoblement of Sigmund Haffner, a wealthy citizen of Salzburg. Leopold Mozart had a long-standing friendship with the Haffner family, and through that Wolfgang had earlier been commissioned to compose a serenade for the occasion of the marriage of Sigmund Haffner's daughter Elizabeth. The earlier serenade, written in 1776, is in the form of an extended violin concerto, and is one of Mozart's most successful compositions from his years in Salzburg.

Leopold received the request for the second serenade in the summer of 1782. There followed an altercation between father and son and Wolfgang was unwilling to write the serenade. He was living in Vienna and was engaged on a number of important projects including the scoring of his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail and his marriage to Constanze Weber. Nevertheless he did work on it and sent it in parts to Leopold though it is not certain how much he had completed by the time of the ennoblement ceremony. In December 1772 he asked Leopold to return the score to him, intending to include it in a concert in Vienna. On seeing the score again, he was amazed at its quality; given the little time he had devoted to its composition, and decided to convert the work into a symphony. Two of the movements were removed (a march which is now catalogued as K385a), and a minuet. The remaining four movements were revised and re-orchestrated to include flutes and clarinets.

The symphony was first performed at a concert of Mozart's music, on the 23rd March 1783 in Vienna. The Emperor attended, and among the musicians was the soprano Aloysia Lange, Constanze's sister, who a few years earlier had refused Mozart's offer of marriage. The concert program may astonish modern listeners. It began with the first three movements of the new symphony. Then followed an aria from Idomeneo, a piano concerto, a concert aria, some movements from earlier serenades, another piano concerto and another concert aria. Mozart then improvised a fugue and played two sets of variations for the piano. Another concert aria followed before at last the final movement of the Haffner symphony was played.

The symphony opens with a grand movement that Mozart stated was to be played with fire. It uses a conventional sonata form, but has many inventive features including subtle harmonic shifts in the development section, fugal passages and a new brilliant coloring provided by the clarinet. Clarinets emerged around 1700 but were only just gaining acceptance as an orchestral instrument at the time. Mozart had previously used them in his Paris symphony, and went on to write many works for the instrument including the first and still perhaps the greatest clarinet concerto.

The second movement complements the first with delicate graceful melodies passed between the woodwinds and strings. It is in binary form, with contrasting first and second subjects, and a brief choral like interval for the winds at start of the second half.

The minuet restores the grand manner of the first movement and is given the character of a dialogue by its alternating forte and piano passages. It is remarkably simple harmonically, using mostly just the tonic and dominant chords, revealing perhaps its origin as a serenade for a ceremonial occasion. The trio section forms a strong contrast, being much more lyrical and played piano throughout.

The last movement is an energetic presto, which has sometimes been compared to the Overture for Le Nozze di Figaro. Mozart advised his father Leopold, that it should be played "as fast as possible". It is a virtuosic movement that is full of surprises in the dynamics and the harmony creating an exhilarating and good-humored end to the symphony.

 

MENDELSSOHN

Violin Concerto, Op. 64, in E minor (Movement 1)

There is perhaps no more popular or beloved violin concerto than Felix Mendelssohn’s masterpiece in E minor. The prodigy’s concerto breaks the Romantic violin concerto tradition of vapid showpieces with little need for artistry or passion, and whose orchestra parts are sparse, insipid, and uninteresting. Mendelssohn referred to these Paganini inspired works as merely “juggler’s tricks and rope dancer’s feats.” Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto was the first significant concerto for violin since Beethoven’s of 1806 and was the last until the concertos of Bruch in 1868, and Tchaikovsky and Brahms, both written in 1878.

In 1838, Mendelssohn wrote to the violinist Ferdinand David and stated, “I would like to compose a violin concerto for you next winter; one in e minor sticks in my head, the beginning of which will not leave me in peace.” Mendelssohn had been appointed the music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835, and immediately named his childhood friend, Ferdinand David, the orchestra’s concertmaster. The concerto would be Mendelssohn’s last orchestral endeavor and took him six years to complete from the time he initially wrote to David. David was involved in every aspect of the concerto’s composition and served as its technical advisor – a testament to how much Mendelssohn respected David, seeing that Mendelssohn was a capable violinist himself. The work premiered on March 13, 1845, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, David as soloist, and Neils Gade conducting.

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is groundbreaking and goes against established concerto conventions in several ways, beginning overtly in the opening of the first movement. Instead of a lengthy orchestral introduction which would lay out the principal themes of the concerto, Mendelssohn writes a measure and a half introduction, that really only serves to outline the key of e minor, and immediately brings in the soloist with the principal thematic material. This changes the formal structure of the first movement by alleviating the need for a double exposition (one for the orchestra, and one for the soloist). Mendelssohn again breaks with tradition in the placement of the concerto’s cadenza – putting it before the recapitulation instead of after it. It is believed that Ferdinand David was possibly responsible for the cadenza’s material, which notably, Mendelssohn wrote into the score. It would have been standard procedure of the time to leave it up to the performer to improvise a cadenza.

As with all popular and ubiquitous works, there can be critical backlash that questions the artistic or musical value of an oft-played piece. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto has escaped this fate because it is undeniably a masterpiece in the violin repertoire. In 1921, the esteemed musicologist, Sir Donald Francis Tovey, wrote, “I rather envy the enjoyment of anyone who should hear the Mendelssohn (violin) concerto for the first time and find that, like Hamlet, it was full of quotations.”

(Lori Newman)

 

Verdi

Overature to La Forza del Destino

Verdi composed only two operas for introduction outside Western Europe: Aida, for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo in 1871, and La forza del destino, which the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg commissioned ten years earlier. The backgrounds of these two works have two other details in common: for each of them the originally scheduled premiere had to be postponed, and for each of them Verdi at first provided a brief orchestral prelude which he subsequently expanded into a full-fledged overture—the type of piece designated sinfonia in Italian opera scores—for its first presentation at La Scala some years later. The composer recognized his expanded overture to Aida as a bad idea when he heard it in rehearsal in 1872, and he scrapped it in favor of the original prelude. The new overture he composed three years earlier for the Milan premiere of La forza del destino, however (following performances in Rome, New York and London with the original prelude), was something he was proud of, and he confidently made it a permanent part of the score.

In some of its early productions, this opera was presented under the title Don Alvaro. The libretto, written by Verdi's frequent collaborator Francesco Maria Piave, was based on the Spanish play Don Alvaro, ó La fuerza del sino, written in 1835 by Angel Pedro de Saavedra Ramírez de Banquedano, the Duke of Rivas, with an additional scene borrowed from Friedrich Schiller's earlier drama Wallenstein's Camp. The Overture, generally regarded as the finest of all Verdi's symphonic introductions, is not an encapsulation of the drama, but rather a powerful evocation of its atmosphere, incorporating the "Fate" motif which plays so big a part at the end of Act I and themes from later in the work (Alvaro's aria in Act IV, Leonora's prayer in Act II, her duet with Padre Guardiano).

(Richard Freed)

 

STRAUSS

Death and Transfiguration

Nothing could have been more "modern" in the music of the 1880s and ͚90s than the symphonic poem, that bold attempt to create drama without words and to test music's expressive powers to the fullest. Pioneered by Franz Liszt from the 1850s on, the new genre found a practitioner of genius in the young Richard Strauss. In a series of orchestral works that established him as one of the leading avant-gardists of the day, Strauss did not hesitate to tackle in his music the most complex literary and philosophical topics possible. Although some have continued to maintain that music is incapable of handling such topics, Strauss's openness to extra-musical ideas couldn't help but have an indelible impact. Works that sound like Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration or Also sprach Zarathustra would be unthinkable without programmatic thinking. There may be traces of classical forms in each of these works, but

"Symphonies in C major" (or any other key) they are certainly not: their unique musical features simply could not exist without the ideas reflected in their titles.

Strauss ended his magnificent series of tone poems with Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life") in 1899, but in a sense, all his symphonic poems are "heroes' lives." The youthful, reckless, yet at the same time profoundly world-weary Don Juan; Till Eulenspiegel, who pays for his mischief-making with his life; Don Quixote, who loses his battle against the windmills-they all have one thing in common: each confronts the entire world all by himself, to be defeated in the physical sense but triumphing in spirit.

The same can be said of the unnamed but certainly exceptional dying artist in Strauss's third tone poem, Death and Transfiguration. (It was preceded by Aus Italien and Don Juan; Macbeth, begun earlier than Death and Transfiguration, was only completed later.) Here Strauss dispensed with literary sources altogether; instead, he created an original conception that received its literary formulation from Strauss's friend and erstwhile mentor, Alexander Ritter, after the music had already been written. The work's underlying idea is explained in a letter written by Strauss in 1894:

"It was six years ago that it occurred to me to present in the form of a tone poem the dying hours of a man who had striven towards the highest idealistic aims, maybe indeed those of an artist. The sick man lies in bed, asleep, with heavy irregular breathing; friendly dreams conjure a smile on the features of the deeply suffering man; he wakes up; he is once more racked with horrible agonies; his limbs shake with fever - as the attack passes and the pains leave off, his thoughts wander through his past life; his childhood passes before him, the time of his youth with its strivings and passions and then, as the pains already begin to return, there appears to him the fruit of his life's path, the conception, the ideal which he has sought to realize, to present artistically, but which he has not been able to complete, since it is not for man to be able to accomplish such things. The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body in order to find gloriously achieved in everlasting space those things which could not be fulfilled here below."

An ambitious program, and it is certainly remarkable that a young man barely 25 years old should have had such a highly developed image of death and dying. What is even more astonishing is the unerring instinct with which Strauss realized his concept. Melodic material, orchestration, and musical form are all uniquely suited to express that concept; for no matter what the "anti-expressivists" say, Strauss undoubtedly did full justice to his subject here.

The stages of the hero's last hours, as Strauss described them in his letter, are somewhat analogous to the phases of anger, denial, and acceptance found in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's famous (and, of course, much later) book on dying. After some introductory measures ("Largo") in which the strings' rhythmic figure seems to imitate an irregular heartbeat, the woodwinds, accompanied by the harp, intone a melody of unspeakable sadness, followed by the main lyrical idea of the work, based on a descending scale and played by a solo violin. In the ensuing "Allegro molto agitato," violent suffering erupts; as Norman Del Mar writes in his three-volume study of Strauss's life and music, "the ill man can be heard writhing in agony." The lyrical melody returns, this time played by the flute, evoking peaceful memories. But the theme soon becomes agitated again, to express both past and present turmoil; as in Don Juan, Strauss endows the traditional formal device of recapitulation with intense dramatic meaning. A sweeping new idea, the "transfiguration" theme, appears in this section. After all the other themes-those associated with turmoil, memories, and irregular heartbeat-have been revisited and left behind, the "transfiguration" theme takes over completely, to give the piece its radiant and justly celebrated ending.

According to the often-repeated story, when Richard Strauss lay dying in 1949 (exactly 60 years after writing this work), he said to his daughter-in-law: "Funny thing, Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Death and Transfiguration." Strauss had in fact set to music that "white light" that many people have mentioned when speaking of near-death experiences. If he had done nothing else in life, this in itself would have been enough to make him immortal.

(Peter Laki)