Full program notes:
Franz Joseph Haydn
Born: March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died: May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria
Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major, La Reine
Haydn served as kapellmeister to the Esterházy court for three decades (1761 to 1790), a period spent in what he himself described as “isolation”—the Esterházys maintained palaces in small villages on the edge of the Hungarian plain. In Eisenstadt and Eszterházy Haydn had an excellent orchestra and a discriminating royal audience, but as the years went by he became interested in wider fame, and in 1779 Prince Nikolaus gave him the freedom to accept commissions from other sources. One of the first of these came from Paris, where the Loge Olympique, a Masonic order, sponsored a series of public concerts in the Tuileries. The young Count d’Ogny, one of the leaders of the lodge, had long been an admirer of Haydn’s music, and in 1784 he commissioned six symphonies from the composer, who had just turned 52. These works inevitably became known as the Paris Symphonies (Nos. 82 to 87).
The commission brought Haydn new fame, significant income (he was paid the handsome sum of 25 Louis d’or per symphony) and expanded artistic opportunities. The orchestra of the Loge Olympique was huge: it might have as many as 70 players, including 40 violins, while Haydn’s Esterházy orchestra had at most about 25 players. The Parisian orchestras were also famed for the brilliance of their playing. Haydn was aware of the Parisian sense of spectacle—the orchestra of the Loge Olympique wore sky-blue coats, lace and swords while they played—and he knew that he would be writing for a large audience rather than for a small, refined court. Thus he wrote grand symphonies, full of energy and appealing melodies, and it is no surprise that Haydn’s Paris Symphonies remain, more than two centuries after their composition, among his most popular.
the Queen’s favorite
Three of the Paris Symphonies have nicknames—No. 82, The Bear; No. 83, The Hen; and No. 85, The Queen. The first two arose from the music itself: audiences made out growling sounds in the finale of The Bear and clucking noises in the first movement of The Hen. But the third came from farther afield. Symphony No. 85 was reportedly the favorite of Queen Marie Antoinette, who attended the concerts in the Tuileries. When it was published by Imbault in 1788, its title page bore the subtitle “La Reine de France,” and it has been known as La Reine ever since. Marie Antoinette heard this symphony in 1787, near the end of her increasingly troubled reign; within two years she would lose her throne and her freedom (and later her head).
Still, when Haydn wrote this music, it was simply the Symphony in B-flat major. Scored for what might seem relatively modest forces, this is nevertheless powerful music that rings out with a grand sonority well suited to the large orchestras of Paris. And it is fast: two briskly-paced outer movements, marked Vivace and Presto, frame inner movements both marked Allegretto, allowing this symphony no true slow movement.
the music: surprises along the way
adagio–vivace. The Symphony No. 85 gets off to an imposing start with a grand introduction, full of runs and dotted rhythms. It is also loud (the dynamic is fortissimo), which makes the beginning of the Vivace all the more effective, as the music turns fast and soft at the same instant. In this nicely integrated movement, Haydn spins all of his material out of this same Vivace tune and recalls the runs from the introduction. Along the way this theme makes a striking plunge into F minor, and the music suddenly turns fierce in a passage curiously reminiscent of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, composed l5 years earlier. The storm passes quickly, however, and the movement powers to an exhilarating close.
romanze: allegretto; menuetto: allegretto. Haydn nods to his French hosts (sponsors, performers and audience) in the second movement, which is a set of variations on the French song La gentille et jeune Lisette (Lovely Young Lisette). Haydn titles this movement Romanze, underlining the intimate character of the little tune, and then offers four sprightly variations in which the tune always remains clear. The Menuetto has a sonorous sweep, nicely setting off the poised trio section.
presto. The finale leaps to life with an infectious eight-measure phrase that instantly has us tapping our feet, comfortable in the knowledge that this will be a rondo. But Haydn is Haydn, and there are surprises along the way. Suddenly the little tune grows complex and begins to develop, and then, just as suddenly, Haydn makes a polished return to the rondo and rounds matters off with a ringing cadence.
This music just plain sounds good. One wonders what that 1787 performance—given before Marie Antoinette by an orchestra dressed in sky-blue coats—must have sounded like.
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 17, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria
Concerto No. 3 in E-flat major for Horn and Orchestra, K. 447
The music in Mozart’s concertos often has the quality of transposed opera and, like most of Mozart’s operatic roles and concert arias, these works are, to borrow from dance parlance, “made on” particular performers. The voice and personality behind Mozart’s four horn concertos are those of Joseph Leutgeb.
Leutgeb was a virtuoso who had been principal horn in Salzburg during Mozart’s young years. By 1770, he was doing considerable solo work, enjoying exceptional success in Paris. In 1773, he joined Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart on part of their Italian tour. In 1777, he moved to Vienna where, in addition to keeping up his musical activities, he ran a cheese store. He retired from playing about 1792 and died in 1811. A certain bratty vein of Mozart’s humor emerges in the manuscripts destined for Leutgeb, which contain such remarks as “a sheep could trill like that,” and in one of which he sets a trap for the soloist by marking his part Adagio where the orchestra has Allegro—but Leutgeb remained an unswervingly loyal friend.
More to the point, Leutgeb was an artist. Playing the horn is not easy now; in Mozart’s and Leutgeb’s day it was even riskier. Valves came in around 1820, but until then, players had available only those 16 pitches that were part of the natural overtone series (nine of them bunched together in the highest of the instrument’s three octaves, and not perfectly in tune), plus some other notes that could be produced by inserting the hand into the bell onefourth, half, or three-quarters of the way. The trouble was this hand-stopping altered the tone, making it in various degrees nasal, muffled or snarly. That meant that to play a continuous melody required unremitting vigilance and uncanny finesse, It is no wonder that Mozart’s concertos for horn are much shorter than those for other instruments.
delights and challenges
Mozart’s horn concertos offer many delights to the listener as well as challenges to the soloist. The Third Concerto is the most poetic of the four as well as the one whose sound is the most special, for here alone Mozart departs from the oboe-horn combination of the other works to give us instead the velvety background of clarinets and bassoons.
allegro. For so compressed a work, an astonishing variety of musical characters passes before us. In his boldest flight of poetry, not to mention his utter faith in Leutgeb’s artistry, Mozart begins his development in the dreamily remote key of D-flat major, making his way back to the home key by way of a succession of magic modulations we would find remarkable if we came across it in one of his most inventive piano concertos.
romanza: larghetto; allegro. The middle movement, which Mozart labels Romanza, is in A-flat major, a key he ventures into rarely and one that always sets him to music. The serene melody of the Romanza stages an unexpected reappearance when it turns up—in quick tempo—as one of the episodes in the artful hunt-music finale (a device Mahler would charmingly imitate in his Fifth Symphony).
The date of this concerto’s composition is not known. It used to be given as 1783, but studies of both Mozart’s handwriting in the manuscript and of the paper itself have led scholars to conclude that 1787 or 1788 would be more accurate. Nothing is known about the first performance, nor did Mozart leave any cadenzas.
Instrumentation: solo horn with orchestra comprising 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and strings
Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.
Born: November 22, 1913, Lowestoft, England
Died: December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh, England
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Opus 33a
Peter Grimes, one of the great operas of the 20th century, depends for much of its force on Britten’s superb evocation of the harsh and violent Suffolk coast. But surprisingly enough, the opera got its start in Southern California.
Britten had left England for Long Island in 1939, believing that his homeland was blocked to him as an artist and intending to make a new life in America. After bouts of ill health he wished for a warmer climate, and he accepted an invitation to spend the summer of 1941 in Escondido, just north of San Diego. Britten and Peter Pears drove an ancient car across the country, reaching their destination that spring.
from poem to opera
Early that summer, Pears bought a volume of the poetry of George Crabbe, with which the two young men now found themselves enthralled. Crabbe (1754-1832), from Britten’s own Suffolk, had a bleak vision of mankind and of Suffolk life. To a friend in Long Island, Britten wrote: “We’ve just re-discovered the poetry of George Crabbe (all about Suffolk!) & are very excited— maybe an opera one day—!”
Britten was particularly taken with Crabbe’s The Borough (1810), which tells of a deadly collision between a Suffolk fishing village— which represents convention, religion, law and smugness—and Peter Grimes, an outcast, violent, perhaps demented, yet longing for acceptance by the community he despises. And when Serge koussevitzky commissioned an opera from Britten the following winter, he chose this as his subject. The composer returned to England in April 1942, fired by a new passion for his native Suffolk. He composed Peter Grimes in 1944-45, and its premiere in June 1945 was a triumph.
The opera is in three acts, and as preludes to the acts or as interludes between scenes Britten composed six orchestral interludes, brief mood-pieces designed to set a scene, establish a mood or hint at character. Even before the opera had been produced, Britten assembled an orchestral suite made up of four of these, which he called Sea Interludes, and led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in its premiere on June 14, 1945.
the music: portraits of the sea
dawn. The first interlude comes at the conclusion of the opera’s opening Prologue, during which the Borough questions Grimes about the death of his previous apprentice. Here is gray daybreak on the bleak Suffolk coast, evoked by the high, clear, pure sound of unison flutes and violins. This is haunting, evocative music, full of the cries of sea birds, the hiss of surf across rocky beaches, and—menacing in the deep brass—the swell of the sea itself.
sunday morning. The second interlude, the prelude to Act II, opens with the sound of church bells pealing madly in the horns and woodwinds. The strings have the theme that one character, Ellen Orford, sings in praise of the sunny sea: “Glitter of waves / And glitter of sunlight / Bid us rejoice / And lift our hearts high.”
moonlight. A portrait of the tranquil sea, broken by splashes of sound from flute, xylophone and harp, serves as the prelude to the opera’s third act.
storm. The concluding selection depicts a storm that strikes the coasts; it forms the interlude between Scenes 1 and 2 of Act I. The violence of the opening gives way to a more subdued central section before the storm breaks out again and drives the music to its powerful close. Britten noted: “…My life as a child was colored by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships on our coast and ate away whole stretches of neighboring cliffs. In writing Peter Grimes, I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea.”
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, tamtam, xylophone, chimes in B-flat and E-flat, harp and strings
Born: March 7, 1875, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France
Ravel, like many French composers, was profoundly wary of German music. Yet there was one German form for which he felt undiluted affection: the waltz. As a young piano student in Paris, Ravel fell under the spell of Schubert’s waltzes for piano, and in 1911 he composed his own Noble and Sentimental Waltzes, a set of charming waltzes modeled on the Schubert dances he loved so much. Earlier, in 1906, he had planned a great orchestral waltz with the working title Wien (Vienna), but the piece was delayed and Ravel did not return to it until the fall of 1919. This was the year after the conclusion of World War I, and the French vision of the Germanic world was now quite different than it had been when he originally conceived the piece.
Nevertheless, Ravel still felt the appeal of the project, and by December he was madly at work. The orchestration was completed the following March, and the first performance took place in Paris on December 12, 1920. By this time, perhaps wary of wartime associations, Ravel had renamed the piece La Valse.
an opulent—and troubling—score
Ravel described exactly his original conception for the work: “Whirling clouds give glimpses, through rifts, of couples waltzing. The clouds scatter little by little. One sees an immense hall peopled with a twirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of chandeliers bursts forth fortissimo. An Imperial Court, about 1855.”
The music also gives us this scene. Out of the murky, misty beginning come bits of waltz rhythms; gradually these join together and plunge into an animated dance. This is dazzling writing for orchestra, some of which results from the music’s rhythmic energy, some from Ravel’s keen ear for instrumental color.
If La Valse concluded with all this elegant vitality, our sense of the music might be clear, but instead it drives to an ending full of frenzied violence. We come away not so much exhilarated as shaken. Ravel made a telling comment about this conclusion: “I had intended this work to be a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which was associated in my imagination an impression of a fantastic and fatal sort of dervish’s dance.”
Is this music a celebration of the waltz—or an exploration of the darker spirit behind the culture that created it? Many have opted for the latter explanation, hearing in La Valse not a Rosenkavalierlike evocation of a more graceful era, but the snarling menace behind that elegance.
Ravel himself was evasive about the ending. Aware of its implications, he explained in a letter to a friend: “Some people have seen in this piece the expression of a tragic affair; some have said that it represented the end of the Second Empire, others that it was postwar Vienna. They are wrong. Certainly, La Valse is tragic, but in the Greek sense: it is a fatal spinning around, the expression of vertigo and the voluptuousness of the dance to the point of paroxysm.”
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, antique cymbals, castanets, tambourine, tamtam, triangle, bells, 2 harps and strings
Program notes on the Haydn, Britten and Ravel works by Eric Bromberger.