Program Notes: Osmo Vänskä and Yo-Yo Ma

Program Notes: Osmo Vänskä and Yo-Yo Ma

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Full program notes:

Bedrich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana
Born: March 2, 1824, Litomyšl, Czech Republic
Died: May 12, 1884, Prague

The Moldau, No. 2 from Má Vlast (My Homeland)

During the second half of the 19th century, the countries we now know as Slovakia and the Czech Republic were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, ruled by Hapsburg monarchs. Nationalism in music was largely a reaction to German and Austrian dominance of musical forms. Across Europe, many nations were discovering in their native folk music and dance rhythms the materials for an individual musical style that could also serve as a powerful reminder of national identity. A staunch patriot, Bedřich Smetana found in composing the outlet for his deep love of his native Bohemia. Most of his compositions were inspired by an event in his life or an extra-musical association with his homeland. 

a cycle of nationalist tone poems
Smetana’s greatest work is Má Vlast, a series of six orchestral tone poems composed over a period of several years in the 1870s and dedicated to the city of Prague. It is the quintessential nationalist work, celebrating the rich Bohemian heritage and land of which Smetana was so proud. Heard in its entirety, Má Vlast is a unified cycle both musically and spiritually. It encompasses Czech legend, landscape, geography and history, evoking both people and places. All are represented in Smetana’s section titles: Vyšehrad, the half-legendary rock towering above the river; Vlatva (the Moldau River); Sárka (after both a valley and an Amazon woman in ancient Czech legend), From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields; Tábor (a town in southern Bohemia that was the headquarters of the religious and political reformer Jan Hus); and Blaník (a continuation of Tábor). Best known by far is its second movement, The Moldau, a favorite of most symphony-goers and performed more frequently than any of the other segments. 

the music: following the river’s course
Vltava (“Moldau” in German-speaking lands) is the river originating in southern Bohemia, converging with the River Elbe in the north. Smetana’s The Moldau is a series of episodes freely following the river’s course from its origins until the point where it joins the Elbe. It begins with the orchestra’s first and second flutes representing the two springs—one warm water, the other cold— that feed the river, joining to run through rustic countryside. The flutes’ sinuous, liquid lines constitute one of the most ingenious evocations of nature in all music.

The flutes are joined by the clarinets, and eventually by strings, as the forest streams join forces to become a mighty river, whose full majesty is declaimed by a famous E-minor melody. Notes in the score indicate the Moldau’s path as it meanders. Smetana next takes us past a scene of hunting in the forest, a rustic village wedding (signaled by a change to duple meter and a peasant dance), moonlight and the dance of water sprites, rapids, and a final salute as the river passes by Vyšehrad, the massive rock that overlooks Prague (which is also the subject of Má Vlast’s first segment). 

The Moldau’s musical form has some of the rhetorical inevitability of the river itself; on a more technical basis, Smetana provides unity by re-introducing the Moldau theme in the final sections, this time in rich E major that celebrates the river’s power.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, harp and strings 


Franz Joseph Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn
Born: March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died: May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in C major for Cello and Orchestra, Hob. VIIb:1

We love Haydn best for his symphonies, string quartets and oratorios, but he was a prolific composer in other genres, including opera, keyboard sonatas and songs. Why did he cultivate the solo concerto less than his Italian and South German contemporaries? One reason is that, unlike Mozart a couple of decades later, he was not primarily writing for himself, and did not rely on virtuoso instrumental works to earn his living. Another factor is that in the mid-18th century, aristocratic taste in Austria favored the symphony rather than the concerto.

Most of Haydn’s instrumental concertos date from the 1760s, during the first years he was in the employ of the wealthy Esterházy princes. As Kapellmeister, Haydn oversaw the court orchestra, which already had a fine reputation. Determined to make a good ensemble even better, he set out to engage new players to strengthen its ranks. One of Haydn’s new hires was the excellent cellist Joseph Weigl, who was appointed principal cellist of the Esterházy orchestra in 1761, at Haydn’s recommendation. Weigl remained in that position until 1769. The two men became friends as well as colleagues; Haydn and his wife were godparents to two of the Weigl children. The Cello Concerto in C major was composed for Weigl, probably in the early 1760s. It was clearly designed to show off Weigl’s superior skill.

the music: festive and ceremonial
moderato. Cast in three spacious movements, the concerto has a festive and ceremonial air. The relaxed pace in the opening Moderato allows for detailed conversational exchange between the orchestra and the soloist, rather like the alternations between the full ensemble and concertino group of soloists in a Baroque concerto grosso. Haydn’s thematic material emphasizes dotted rhythms and complex patterns that sometimes emulate the cadences of speech. The movement proceeds with courtly elegance and grace, peppered with a few flashes of brilliance. At tonight’s performance, Yo-Yo Ma performs his own cadenza.

adagio. The orchestra recedes to the background in the slow movement, permitting the soloist to demonstrate beautiful sound in intimate, songlike melodies.

rondo: allegro. In the finale, Haydn pulls out the virtuoso stops, with a headlong race that highlights the soloist’s agility and brilliant technique. He sends the cellist fearlessly into the instrument’s uppermost register, only to plunge headlong into its rich lower depths. Dazzling runs and passage work abound as the soloist skitters at breakneck pace all over the instrument. The ride is somewhat like a roller coaster: at once heart-pounding and exhilarating. With good reason, this concerto has become a favorite of audiences and cellists alike.

a near miss: rediscovered centuries later
Haydn’s C-major Cello Concerto is a masterpiece of his early years at Esterházy, and has become the most successful instrumental concerto of the mid-18th century. It is, however, a matter of sheer musicological happenstance that we have it at all. Scholars knew of its existence because Haydn recorded it in a catalogue of his compositions he began compiling in 1765. He continued to update the document, known as the Entwurf-Katalog (Draft Catalogue), until the late 1770s, and it is considered a seminal source work for authentication of Haydn’s music. It was the basis for a more comprehensive catalogue prepared in 1805 by Johann Elssler, under Haydn’s supervision.

Unfortunately, the manuscript to the C-major Cello Concerto disappeared at some point. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, subsequent catalogues of Haydn’s compositions referred to this work as missing or lost. In 1961, Oldřich Pulkert, an archivist in the Prague National Museum, came across a set of parts, apparently in Joseph Weigl’s hand. Comparing them to the thematic entry in the Entwurf-Katalog, he was able to identify the missing concerto. The first performance in nearly two centuries took place in Prague in May 1962; Miloš Sádlo was the soloist and Sir Charles Mackerras led the Czech Radio Symphony. Haydn’s previously unknown concerto was immediately heralded as the great work it is, and has been joyously entrenched in the literature ever since.

Instrumentation: solo cello with orchestra comprising 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings


Felix Mendelssohn
Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Opus 21

The genesis of Mendelssohn’s beloved Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a tale almost as appealing as Shakespeare’s play. On a balmy August night in 1826, the Mendelssohn family was entertaining Johann Franz Encke, an astronomer who directed the Berlin Observatory. After dinner, Felix excused himself for a walk in the garden, to gaze at the stars that had been the primary topic of conversation during the meal. His attention was diverted by the gossamer activity of the summer night. Floral fragrances wafted through the air on gentle breezes. Four such zephyrs are said to have been the origins of the woodwind chords that open and close the overture. The feather-light string figuration taken up by both violin sections is Felix’s musical impression of fireflies flickering at nightfall. Years later, he told the English composer William Sterndale Bennett, “That night I encountered Shakespeare in the garden!”

affinity for the Bard of Avon
Felix had read Shakespeare in German translation and revered him as “the most perfect poet who ever lived.” His original intent was to express the spirit of Shakespeare’s immortal comedy in a single concert movement. He was only 17 when he composed this flawless overture. The rest of his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream did not follow until 1843. Then, at the ripe old age of 34, he decided to expand the overture’s themes into a full complement of music to accompany a staged performance of the play.

a new genre: the concert overture
The overture is a fine example of sonata form, consistent with Mendelssohn’s penchant for the ideals of the 18th century. He controlled the formal apparatus effortlessly. We are more conscious of Shakespearean subplots than we are of first and second themes, development and recapitulation. Robert Schumann considered that, with this work, Mendelssohn had invented a new genre: the programmatic concert-overture. Yet the movement’s success derives from atmospheric rather than specifically narrative means. 

Mendelssohn’s incomparably light touch is absolutely perfect for this music. A lifelong master of the scherzo, he incorporated all the best characteristics of his style into this glorious overture. We have the mysterious, elfin, faerie world of Titania, Oberon, and their minions Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed. The boisterous good nature of Bottom, Flute, Snout and their cohorts also finds its place in the score, including the braying of the ass. Nor does Mendelssohn ignore the ultimately noble sentiments of the Athenian nobles, Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena. Above all, both magic and humor shine forth, happily joined in this miraculous overture.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani and strings


Antonín Dvořák 
Born: September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died: May 1, 1904, Prague

Silent Woods for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 68, No. 5

Silent Woods originated in Dvořák’s From the Bohemian Forest (1884), a collection of six pieces for one piano, four hands. Each movement focuses on an aspect of southwestern Bohemia, where Dvořák had a much-loved country house. In 1892, a few months before his departure for New York to head the new National Conservatory, he embarked on a farewell tour of smaller Bohemian and Moravian towns, performing a program of his music with his friends Ferdinand Lachner, professor of violin at Prague Conservatory, and the cellist Hanuš Wihan (the eventual dedicatee of Dvořák’s late masterpiece, the Cello Concerto in B minor).

Their signature work was the Dumky Piano Trio, but to flesh out their concert program, Dvořák also arranged some earlier pieces to play with his friends, including Silent Woods for cello and piano. He liked the five-minute movement well enough to arrange it for cello and small orchestra as well; that is the version that Yo-Yo Ma plays this evening.

innermost thoughts and feelings
The music is in modified ternary form. The cellist’s poetic, intimate melody unfolds at a measured pace that suggests the composer is revealing his innermost thoughts and feelings. At emotionally charged moments, he soars to the instrument’s high register. A more agitated middle section provides musical contrast and opportunity for rich dialogue with the woodwinds. Cameo solos for clarinet and flute are especially lovely. If God is to be found in nature, Silent Woods feels like a prayer.

Instrumentation: solo cello with orchestra comprising flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, horn and strings


Franz Liszt 
Born: October 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary
Died: July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany

Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3

a new genre: Liszt the inventor
Although we might think of the Hungarian-born Liszt as a piano virtuoso first and a composer second, he had considerable impact on his era in other respects. Liszt is credited with inventing the piano recital as we know it. He was also an influential patron and mentor of younger composers, particularly after 1850. As an orchestral composer, Liszt eschewed traditional symphonies for the most part, favoring instead a new type of composition: the symphonic poem. His concept was a single-movement orchestral piece, accompanied by a written program that the audience was intended to read prior to hearing the performance. Such a program was not the same as the printed program notes that you are currently reading. Rather, it introduced an extramusical association (for example, a poem or other literary source) intended to stimulate the listener’s imagination and subsequent grasp of the music.

Liszt was an educated and literate man. He perceived through program music an opportunity to merge different facets of romantic sensibility. Descriptive overtures such as Beethoven’s Coriolan (1807) and Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides (1829-32) prompted his thinking. In 1854, he coined the term “symphonic poem”—itself a combination of musical and literary terminology—as the subtitle for his latest orchestral work, Tasso. Eventually, he endowed the repertoire with a dozen examples of this new genre, all composed during the 13 years (1848-61) he spent in Weimar, Germany. Liszt’s widespread influence is eminently clear in the many tone poems of his younger contemporaries, most notably Richard Strauss.

from choral settings to orchestral masterwork
If we sought one symphonic poem that both encompassed the sweeping passions of 19-century romanticism and embodied the tempestuous career of Franz Liszt, Les Préludes would surely fit the bill. It has a bewildering and complex history. Les Préludes began as an overture to four choral settings of poetry by Joseph Autran. By the time Liszt completed the score in 1854, he had discarded the choral pieces (which were never published) and reworked the overture to comport with the verse and philosophy of a more prominent French poet: Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869). Liszt’s score acquired the heading Les Préludes (d’après Lamartine), connecting his music to the poet’s Méditations poétiques, a collection of 24 poems published in 1820. The link is strengthened by the composer’s famous remarks at the front of the score:

“What is our life but a series of Preludes to that unknown song, the first solemn note of which is sounded by Death? The enchanted dawn of every existence is heralded by Love, yet in whose destiny are not the first throbs of happiness interrupted by storms?...”

The preface, which is more Liszt than Lamartine, provides the composer with latitude for widely contrasting emotional states: love and passion; the pastoral calm of nature’s beauty; spiritual conflict. They all find their way into the music. Through a process called thematic transformation (yet another Lisztian innovation), he moves through these widely varied states using only two basic themes. If Les Préludes is the only one of Liszt’s symphonic poems to have found a permanent place in the repertoire, it deserves that berth because of its sweeping grandeur, poetic themes, and inspired orchestration.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, harp and strings

Program notes © 2017 by Laurie Shulman. First North American serial rights only.

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