Program Notes: Andrew Litton and André Watts

Program Notes: Andrew Litton and André Watts

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Full program notes:

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, RussiaThe Moldau, No. 2 from Má Vlast (My Homeland)

Suite from The Sleeping Beauty, Opus 66

In the spring of 1888, Tchaikovsky was visited by the Director of the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who proposed that Tchaikovsky compose the score for a new ballet. It would be based on the fairy tale La belle au bois dormant, originally collected by the 17th-century French writer Charles Perrault and published as part of his Contes de la mere l’oye (Tales of Mother Goose). Tchaikovsky’s one previous ballet, Swan Lake, had been a disaster at its premiere in 1877, and the composer was wary of another such experience. But he was nevertheless attracted to Perrault’s tale. He sketched the new ballet between October 1888 and the spring of 1889 and completed the orchestration on September 1, 1889. 

The premiere of The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on January 15, 1890—attended by the czar—was a huge success. Tchaikovsky, who was perpetually worried about having written himself out, could finally take pleasure in one of his own compositions: “The subject is so poetic (and) it lends itself so admirably to music that I enjoyed composing it very much and worked with a zeal and eagerness that always makes for good results.” For once, the critics agreed, and The Sleeping Beauty has been universally judged one of Tchaikovsky’s finest works.

a familiar fairy tale

The Sleeping Beauty tale is familiar from the Walt Disney version and other iterations. The infant Princess Aurora is blessed by six good fairies at her christening, but the evil Carabosse—who was not invited—shows up in a carriage drawn by rats and pronounces a curse: one day Princess Aurora will prick her finger and die. The Lilac Fairy softens the curse: the princess will not die, but will fall into a slumber for a hundred years, to be awakened by the kiss of her true love. Sixteen years later, at a ball where she is courted by four suitor-princess, Aurora is given a spindle by the disguised Carabosse, pricks her finger, and falls into a deep sleep along with the rest of the court. One hundred years later, Prince Florimund fights his way through the thicket that the Lilac Fairy has caused to grow up around the castle, defeats the evil Carabosse, and discovers the sleeping princess. He awakens her with a kiss, and a wedding celebration soon follows.

the music: a suite compiled by Litton

In its full form, the ballet comprises a Prologue and three acts. The Prologue sets the scene and introduces the characters, while Act I begins with the celebration of Princess Aurora’s 16th birthday and concludes with Carabosse’s curse coming true. Act II brings the arrival of Prince Florimund, the awakening of the princess, and their engagement. Act III is a set of characteristic dances celebrating their wedding. The Sleeping Beauty Suite compiled by Andrew Litton for tonight’s performance presents nine excerpts from the ballet—arranged not in their chronological sequence in the ballet, but rather to provide a musically satisfying concert suite.

The first two movements come from Act II. Prince Florimund and his friends have entered the forest while on a hunt. His friends call him to join them, but the prince feels drawn to enter the forest alone, and he sends them away; Scene is the music that accompanies their departure. The Lilac Fairy now draws the prince into the woods with visions of the sleeping princess, and the elegant Panorama is the music that accompanies Florimund’s approach to the castle where Aurora lies sleeping. The meter and accompaniment are in 6/8, but the violins’ silky melody seems to be in 3/4, and those two rhythms tug nicely at each other throughout. The famous Waltz comes from Act I, where it is part of the princess’ 16th birthday celebration.

The next three excerpts form an important sequence in Act I. The Pas d’action (known as the Rose Adagio) begins with a long harp cadenza and accompanies the scene in which four suitor-princes approach the princess, each with the gift of a rose. This is followed by two ensemble dances. Dances of the Maids of Honour and Pages is a sturdy, propulsive dance over firm rhythms—the violin line is full of trills here—followed by a quick dance to round out the movement. This is followed immediately by Aurora’s Variation. Tchaikovsky gives the orchestra’s concertmaster a starring role in this elegant dance.

The Adagio comes from Act III’s Grand pas de quatre, danced by Princess Aurora, Prince Florimund, the Gold Fairy and the Sapphire Fairy. Its noble opening oboe melody gradually evolves into music of soaring strength. The brief but spirited Presto is the music that propels the ballet into the concluding Apotheosis. In that remarkable final scene, Tchaikovsky brings all his characters together in a grand tableau. This stirring music is based on Vive Henri IV, an ancient French march-melody that was fitted with lyrics in praise of that king. Over the centuries, it has become a virtual symbol of French royalty, and in this grand finale to his ballet Tchaikovsky assigns a leading role to an unexpected instrument, the piano.

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Edward MacDowell
Born: December 18, 1860, New York City
Died: January 23, 1908, New York City

Concerto No. 2 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 23

Edward MacDowell occupies a special place in the history of American music. He is generally regarded as this country’s first classical composer whose music can stand comparison in artistic expression and technical competence with that of many European composers. Like all aspiring American musicians of the late 19th century, MacDowell studied in Europe. He began in Paris from ages 15 to 17, then continued to Germany for three further years of study. He remained in Germany for an additional seven years, teaching piano, composing and moving in the highest musical circles.

MacDowell wrote his Second Piano Concerto in 1884 and 1885 while living in Darmstadt, Germany. The first performance was given on March 5, 1889, shortly after MacDowell’s return to America, with the composer as soloist and with Theodore Thomas conducting the New York Philharmonic. Thereafter, MacDowell continued to enjoy public and critical success on two continents, a success sustained in large part by this concerto. When the New York critic James Huneker remarked that the work “was very good for an American,” Thomas retorted, “or for a German either.”

Indeed, MacDowell’s studies in Germany gave him a solid education in that country’s musical thought and romanticism. If echoes of Grieg’s Piano Concerto are prominent in MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto, it must be remembered that Grieg too studied in Germany. In addition, the influence of Liszt’s two piano concertos cannot be denied. In the words of the MacDowell scholar Christiane Kefferstan: “These pieces share a language in their highly imaginative, rhapsodic forms, nontraditional approaches, and use of thematic recall. There is a sweep, bravura, and sureness of the pianistic writing used by both composers which speaks of intuitive knowledge of resources and effectiveness.”

the music: an American masterpiece

larghetto calmato. The concerto opens with a long introduction. Strings present a wistful subject that contains the seeds of the first movement’s two principal themes. The soloist interrupts to offer the first of the movement’s three(!) cadenzas, a quintessentially bravura piece of romantic writing charged with crashing chords, hammered octaves and whirlwind arpeggios. Following a varied repeat of the orchestral introduction, the soloist presents the first theme, a long-breathed melody against a shimmering accompaniment. Lyricism also infuses the second theme, heard initially in the cellos and clarinet.

presto giocoso. The second movement is not the expected Andante or Adagio, but a fleet Presto, highly unusual though not quite unprecedented (Saint-Saëns had done the same in his Second Piano Concerto). The drama and rhetoric of the first movement give way to music of sparkling joy and breezy spontaneity. Its origins can be found in an orchestral score MacDowell had begun but abandoned, Beatrice and Benedick, inspired by a performance of Much Ado About Nothing he had seen in London in 1884.

largo–molto allegro. Like the first movement, the third opens with an introduction, and like the second, it contains three distinct and easily identifiable ideas: the moody introductory material, derived from the first movement’s main theme; an exuberant, dancelike tune; and a witty, pianistic rollercoaster affair. Throughout, the piano part is written with great skill, verve and a bid for virtuoso effect, ensuring a highly favorable public response after the race to the finish is over.

Program note by Robert Markow.


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 3 in D major, Opus 29, Polish

Few titles are as perplexing as that of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, the Polish, especially since the composer produced a thoroughly Russian work. The clue turns up only in the robust final movement, marked Tempo di polacca. This movement takes its cue from the traditional polonaise, but connotes not so much a national flavor as the general vigor associated with the ceremonial Polish court dance. By the time the tag, Polish, was attached to this symphony, Tchaikovsky had been dead for six years. But the moniker has stuck.

At its Moscow premiere on November 19, 1875, the Third Symphony was given a warm reception—unlike Tchaikovsky’s next major work, Swan Lake. The relative success of the symphony gave the composer encouragement at a time when he most needed it. The Third Symphony is bright and exuberant, and in five movements rather than the expected four—the extra being a folkish scherzo that, in the composer’s own words, was intended to be “in the German style.” So much for the name Polish.

the music: from somber to splendid

introduzione ed allegro—moderato assai (tempo marcia funebre). The somber prologue is built over a single repeated pitch (A) played pizzicato by cellos and basses. Violins and violas announce the portentous motif, but soon the horns take over. Still clinging to the repeated A as the music gradually accelerates, the movement finally bursts into an Allegro brillante, seemingly dismissing any thoughts of Russian gloom. Along the way, however, Tchaikovsky offers a contrasting thought in B minor, its sadness perfectly suited to the oboe before moving on to other winds. Before this compact exposition draws to a close, there is yet a third idea. Playful contrapuntal devices enliven the development, with imitations so close as to follow heel upon tail. Sonorous as the music is, it remains for the coda to pull out all the stops, building a glorious mass of sound whose volume will only be topped in Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies.

alla tedesca: allegro moderato e semplice. Now for the Germanic interlude, whose theme, inaugurated by solo flute and clarinet, suggests a Slavic interpretation of 3/4 time—quite in the spirit of the waltz’s ancestor, the Ländler. Before long, the bassoon tootles away with a counter-theme of its own, and from here on the lowest woodwind is kept busy. While the tempo of the Trio section does not change, motion accrues through a chirping triplet pattern, initially bustling in the winds, and retained by the strings when the bassoons bring back the graceful dance tune.

andante elegiaco. Here is the core of the symphony. The bassoon starts, and will have the last word, as flutes pour out the expressive D-minor strain, one of those heart-on-your-sleeve themes in which Tchaikovsky excelled. There is no concealing his identity—not just in the plethora of his themes but in their soulfulness. The contrasting section focuses on a waltz-like melody that is pure instrumental song of extraordinary warmth and feeling, and building to a poignant climax.

scherzo: allegro vivo. The Scherzo, ignited by muted pizzicatos, sets forth on a will-o’-the-wisp of a subject that races up, then down, sly and teasing, and eminently suited to dialogue among the instruments. At one point, a flute figuration conjures shades of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music, so unabashed as to be deliberate. The Trio, always the centerpiece of a scherzo interlude, is anchored in a stubborn D that persists in the horns, providing a backdrop to the crisply dotted march tune as it roams through a host of different keys.

finale: allegro con fuoco (tempo di polacca). Those who have ever savored the ballroom scene of Tchaikovsky’s most intimate opera, Eugene Onegin, may feel nostalgic at the onset of the Finale, a rondo movement that employs the polonaise-styled tune as its refrain. No lightweight, this concluding movement balances the substance of the opening and, like it, is flagrantly contrapuntal. The close is full of splendor, uniting all the instruments and indulging in noisy cadencing that serves as an affirmation of the robust human spirit.

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff