Full program notes:
Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany
The Hebrides Overture, Opus 26 (Fingal’s Cave) ca. 10'
Of all the master composers who were great traveling companions, Mendelssohn ranks with the best. This affable genius, a man of boundless curiosity and charm who made friends wherever he went, recorded his impressions not only in descriptive letters and on his sketchpad, but in music of extraordinary tonal imagination, like the Hebrides Overture. Richard Wagner praised it as “one of the most beautiful pieces we possess,” recognizing that Mendelssohn’s vivid tone painting was a prelude to his own sea music.
an adventure across Scotland
At 20, Mendelssohn was intent on seeing the world, beginning with England; accompanying him was his best friend Karl Klingemann. The capstone of their trip was an adventure across Scotland. That journey eventually paid off in two masterpieces: the Symphony No. 3, known as the Scottish, an idea for which struck him at Holyrood Castle; and the Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave, named for a tourist attraction off the tiny isle of Staffa. Mendelssohn recorded his impression of the cave in a 21-bar musical fragment which he sent to his sister Fanny on August 7, 1830, telling her: “In order to make you realize how extraordinarily the Hebrides have affected me, the following came into my mind there.” These opening measures have virtually the final form in which they appear in the Overture that Mendelssohn finished in Italy in 1830, but withheld from performance until he was fully satisfied.
Klingemann, an aspiring poet and future diplomat, cast his impression in words that anticipate Mendelssohn’s music: “We were put out in boats and lifted by the hissing sea up to the pillar stumps to the famous Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves never rushed into a stranger cavern—its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without.”
Addressing his family from Paris on January 31, 1832, Mendelssohn sniffed at his manuscript: “The whole so-called development tastes more of counterpoint than of whale-oil and seagulls and cod-liver oil, and it ought to be the other way around.” Soon he revised the score and brought it to London, where, on May 14, the Philharmonic Society gave the first performance. Despite its success, the meticulous composer made still more changes, finally submitting it for publication in 1833, when he remarked to his mother that the work “had become much better through threefold revisions.”
There is no prelude: the theme invented on the spot is immediately unfolded by a somber blend of low strings and bassoon, casting us into the midst of swirling waters and melancholy visions. As the motif expands, it draws more instruments into a vortex of subtly shifting harmonies. The powerful second theme left its imprint on many later Romantic composers. In the work’s brass fanfares, Mendelssohn’s contemporaries detected an epic, Ossianic quality—the wild, Romantic impulse that inspired the poems of the legendary Gaelic hero, imitated by the Scotsman James MacPherson in his grandiloquent rhythmic prose.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Opus 21 ca. 25
Beethoven began sketches for a symphony in C major in 1795, three years after he arrived in Vienna, but the piece did not go well, and he abandoned it. The symphony was the grandest of purely instrumental forms, and, because he did not want to rush into a field where Haydn and Mozart had done such distinguished work, Beethoven used the decade of the 1790s to refine his technique as a composer and to prepare to write a symphony. He slowly mastered sonata form and began to write for larger chamber ensembles and for wind instruments; he also composed two piano concertos before re-approaching the challenge of a symphony. By 1800 he had completed his First Symphony, and it was premiered in Vienna on April 2, 1800.
crisp and exuberant music
The genial First Symphony has occasionally been burdened with ponderous commentary by those who feel that it must contain the seeds of Beethoven’s future development—every modulation and detail of orchestration has been squeezed for evidence of the revolutionary directions the composer would later take. Actually, Beethoven’s First is a very straightforward late 18th-century symphony, the product of a talented young man quite aware of the example of Haydn and Mozart and anxious to master the most challenging form he had faced so far. In fact, one of the most impressive things about Beethoven’s First Symphony is just how conservative it is. It uses the standard Haydn-Mozart orchestra of pairs of winds plus timpani and strings; its form is right out of Haydn, with whom Beethoven had studied; and its spirit is consistently carefree. There are no battles fought and won here, no grappling with darkness and struggling toward the light—the distinction of the First Symphony lies simply in its crisp energy and exuberant music-making.
adagio molto–allegro con brio. The key signature of this symphony may suggest that it is in C major, but the first movement’s slow introduction opens with a stinging discord that glances off into the unexpected key of F major. This leads to another “wrong” key, G major, and only gradually does Beethoven “correct” the tonality when the orchestra alights gracefully on C major at the Allegro con brio. Many have noticed the resemblance between Beethoven’s sturdy main theme here and the opening of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, composed twelve years earlier. This is not a case of plagiarism or of slavish imitation—only a young man’s awareness of the thunder behind him. This energetic movement, with its graceful second theme in the woodwinds, develops concisely and powerfully.
andante cantabile con moto. The second movement is also in sonata form. The main theme arrives as a series of polyphonic entrances, and Beethoven soon transforms the dotted rhythm of this theme’s third measure into an accompaniment figure: it trips along in the background through much of this movement, and Beethoven gives it to the solo timpani for extended periods. Beethoven’s stipulation con moto is crucial: this may be a slow movement, but it pulses continuously forward along its 3/8 meter, driving to a graceful climax as the woodwind choir sings a variant of the main theme.
menuetto: allegro molto e vivace. By contrast, the third movement bristles with energy, and Beethoven’s marking Menuetto frankly seems incorrect: this may well be a minuet in form, but the indication Allegro molto e vivace banishes any notion of dance music. This movement is—in everything but name—a scherzo, the first of the remarkable series of symphonic scherzos Beethoven would write across his career. The trio section is dominated by the winds, whose chorale-like main tune is accompanied by madly-scampering violins.
finale: adagio–allegro molto e vivace.
The most amusing joke in this symphony comes at the opening of the finale, where a rising scale emerges bit by bit, like a snake coming out of its hole; at the Allegro molto vivace, that scale rockets upward to introduce the main theme. With this eight-bar theme, the movement seems at first a rondo, but it is actually in sonata form, complete with exposition repeat and development of secondary themes. A vigorous little march drives the symphony to its resounding close.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
Born: September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died: May 1, 1904, Prague
Symphony No. 8 in G minor, Opus 88 ca. 26'
In the summer of 1889 Dvořák took his family to their summer retreat at Vysoka in the countryside south of Prague. There, amid the rolling fields and forests of his homeland, he could escape the pressures of the concert season, enjoy the company of his wife and children, and indulge one of his favorite pastimes: raising pigeons.
“melodies pour out of me”
Dvořák also composed a great deal that summer. On August 10 he completed his Piano Quartet in E-flat major, writing to a friend that “melodies pour out of me,” and lamenting “If only one could write them down straight away! But there—I must go slowly, only keep pace with my hand, and may God give the rest.” A few weeks later, on August 25, he made the first sketches for a new symphony, and once again the melodies poured out: he began the actual composition on September 6, and on the 13th the first movement was done. The second movement took three days, the third a single day, and by September 23 the entire symphony had been sketched. The orchestration was completed on November 8, and Dvořák himself led the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphony in Prague on February 2, 1890. From the time Dvořák had sat down before a sheet of blank paper to the completion of the full score, only 75 days had passed.
allegro con brio. “Symphony in G major,” says the title page, but the beginning of this work is firmly in the “wrong” key of G minor, and this is only the first of many harmonic surprises. It is also a gorgeous beginning, with the cellos singing their long wistful melody. But—another surprise—this theme will have little to do with the actual progress of the first movement. We soon arrive at what appears to be the true first subject, a flute theme of an almost pastoral innocence (commentators appear unable to resist describing this theme as “birdlike”), and suddenly we have slipped into G major. There follows a wealth of themes; someone counted six separate ideas in the opening minutes of this symphony. Dvořák develops these across the span of the opening movement, and the cellos’ somber opening melody returns at key moments, beginning the development quietly and then being blazed out triumphantly by the trumpets at the stirring climax.
adagio. The two middle movements are just as free. The Adagio is apparently in C minor, but it begins in E-flat major with dark and halting string phrases; the middle section flows easily on a relaxed woodwind tune in C major in which some have heard the sound of cimbalon and a village band. A violin solo leads to a surprisingly violent climax before the movement falls away to its quiet close.
allegretto grazioso. The third movement opens with a soaring waltz in G minor that dances nimbly along its 3/8 meter; the charming center section also whirls in 3/8 time, but here its dotted rhythms produce a distinctive lilt. The movement concludes with nice surprises: a blistering coda, Molto vivace, whips along a variant of the lilting center section tune, but Dvořák has now transformed its triple meter into a propulsive 2/4. The movement rushes on chattering woodwinds right up to its close, where it concludes suddenly with a hushed string chord.
allegro ma non troppo. The finale is a variation movement—sort of. It opens with a stinging trumpet fanfare, an afterthought on Dvořák’s part, added after the rest of the movement was complete. Cellos announce the noble central theme (itself derived from the flute theme of the first movement), and a series of variations follows, including a spirited episode for solo flute. But suddenly the variations vanish: Dvořák throws in an exotic Turkish march full of rhythmic energy, a completely separate episode that rises to a great climax based on the ringing trumpet fanfare from the opening.
Gradually things calm down, and the variations resume as if this turbulent storm had never blown through. Near the end comes lovely writing for strings, and a raucous, joyous coda—a final variation of the main theme—propels this symphony to its rousing close.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.