Program Notes: Common Chords Detroit Lakes

Program Notes: Common Chords Detroit Lakes

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Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz
Born: December 11, 1803, La Côte-St. André, Grenoble
Died: March 8, 1869, Paris

Roman Carnival Overture

Berlioz made a characteristic choice when he decided to write his first opera about Benvenuto Cellini, the 16th-century goldsmith, sculptor, adventurer—and author of a self-conscious autobiography. Berlioz, who would later write his own splendidly self-conscious autobiography, was strongly drawn to the figure of Cellini, but the opera was a complete failure at its premiere in Paris in September 1838. It had only four performances, French audiences sneered at it as “Malvenuto Cellini,” and Berlioz noted, with typical detachment, that after the overture “the rest was hissed with admirable energy and unanimity.” Liszt led a successful revival at Weimar in 1852, but Benvenuto Cellini has not held the stage.

an overture that outshines the opera

Berlioz was stung by the failure of the opera, but he continued to love its music, and years later he would speak of its “variety of ideas, an impetuous verve, and a brilliancy of musical coloring.” In 1843, five years after the failed premiere, he pulled out two of its themes and from them fashioned an overture that he planned to use as an introduction to the second tableau of the opera, set in Rome’s Piazza Colonna during carnival season. Those two themes are the aria “O Teresa, vous que j’aime plus que la vie,” which Benvenuto sings to his 17-year-old lover in the first tableau, and the saltarello from the second tableau, which the players from Cassandro’s theater dance to attract crowds during the pre-Lenten festivities. Berlioz may have intended that his new overture would serve as part of the opera, but when he led the overture as a concert piece in Paris on February 3, 1844, it was such a success that it had to be encored, and it has become one of his most popular works on its own, entirely divorced from the opera that gave it life.

The Roman Carnival Overture, as this music was eventually named, opens with a great flourish that hints at the saltarello theme to be heard later—Berlioz marks this flourish Allegro assai and further specifies that it should be con fuoco, “with fire.” The music quickly settles as the English horn sings Benvenuto’s plaintive love song, and this is extended briefly before the music leaps ahead at the saltarello, originally a dance from the Mediterranean area in a lively 6/8 meter. This is a wonderful moment: the crispness of Berlioz’s rhythmic energy is nicely underlined by his decision to keep the strings muted during the first part of the saltarello. Along its spirited way, Berlioz brings back the love-song theme and turns it into a fugato, and there is some deft combination of the main ideas. Finally, though, it is the dance that triumphs, and Berlioz’s ending explodes with all the sonic fireworks appropriate to a carnival in Rome.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, tambourine, triangle and strings

Georges Bizet

Georges Bizet
Born: October 25, 1838, Paris
Died: June 3, 1875, Bougival

Suite from Carmen

Carmen—Bizet’s opera of passion, jealousy and murder— was a failure at its first performance in Paris in March 1875: the audience seemed outraged at the idea of a loose woman and murder onstage at the Opéra-Comique. Bizet died three months later at age 37, never knowing that he had written what would become one of the most popular operas ever composed. After Bizet’s death, his publisher Choudens felt that the music of the opera was too good to lose, so he commissioned the French composer Ernest Guiraud to arrange excerpts from the work into two orchestral suites of six movements each. The music of Carmen has everything going for it: excitement, color and, best of all, instantly recognizable tunes. From today’s vantage point, it seems impossible that this opera was anything but a smash success from the first instant.

Tonight’s performance offers a concise suite of movements from Carmen drawn from both of Guiraud’s suites. The opening Prelude to Act I presents the ominous “fate motif” that will return throughout the opera, anticipating the heroine’s tragic end at the hand of a spurned lover, the soldier Don José. The jaunty Aragonaise functions as the Prelude to Act IV, when crowds arrive for a parade and a bullfight; it creates a very different mood. It is based on an old Andalusian folksong and features the sound of castanets and a haunting oboe solo.

The Habanera is some of the opera’s most famous music: it is an orchestration of Carmen’s great Act I aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (“Love is a rebellious bird”). Over the rocking habanera rhythm, Carmen states that love is a wanton and unknowable force and offers a warning: if you love me, beware. The Danse bohème, also known as the Gypsy Dance, is a graceful but fiery ballet presented at the beginning of Act II. The location is one of Carmen’s favorite hangouts, a tavern on the outskirts of Seville where gypsies and smugglers often rendezvous.

Next we hear the most famous of all Carmen selections: Les Toréadors, which serves as the Introduction to Act I. The opening introduces the toreadors as they march across the square in Seville; their swagger comes through in the energy and bristling rhythms of Bizet’s music. In the center section, violins sing the famous Toreador Song, later to be sung by the boastful Escamillo, the bullfighter who becomes the next object of Carmen’s passion. The movement concludes with the return of its opening music.

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

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg

Capriccio italien, Opus 45

It’s hard to believe that this blazing, colorful music could have been written when its creator was locked in the throes of a long and disabling depression.

Tchaikovsky had made an ill-advised marriage in 1877 that lasted three weeks. In the shattered aftermath he withdrew not only from society but from his professional commitments. He resigned from the Moscow Conservatory and lived for extended periods in Switzerland, France and Italy, returning occasionally to Russia but then staying at summer estates, far from his old circle of friends and colleagues. It is not surprising that his creativity should suffer under these conditions: the quality of his work fell off, and he had to force himself to write music during these difficult years.

Rome’s sights, smells and folk songs

Tchaikovsky spent the winter of 1880 in Rome, and like millions of other visitors over the last several thousand years, he fell in love with the city. It was carnival season, and life blazed around him in the streets. Crowds, dancers, fireworks, music, the smell of food: all these were part of his impressions of the Eternal City—and suddenly Tchaikovsky felt like writing music.

He turned the tunes he heard around him to good use musically, and on January 16, soon after his arrival, he began writing Capriccio italien. To his patroness Nadejda von Meck back in Russia, he explained his method: “I am working on a sketch of an ‘Italian Fantasia’ based on folk songs. Thanks to the charming themes, some of which I have heard in the streets, the work will be effective.” The actual composition took some time, and Tchaikovsky did not complete Capriccio italien until May, after he had returned to Russia.

The title “capriccio” has no formal musical meaning. It is more a suggestion of atmosphere, indicating something unexpected (the “caprice”) or, more often, something spicy and animated. It is in the latter sense that Tchaikovsky intends the title. Formal structures were never his strong point as a composer, and he makes his “Italian Caprice” out of a series of sections in different meters and keys. The resulting structure is episodic, but few have complained—the music is too much fun.

Capriccio italien opens with a striking military bugle call. Tchaikovsky’s lodgings in Rome were at the Hotel Constanzi, next to the barracks of the Royal Italian Cuirassiers, and he woke to this summons every morning. A series of episodes based on Italian tunes follows. These are sharply varied— some are lyric and melodic, while others are more animated. Throughout, the composer’s keen orchestral sense is always in evidence: this music is brilliantly orchestrated, and Capriccio italien just plain sounds good. Tchaikovsky rounds matters off with a tarantella, a blazing Italian dance in 6/8, and the Capriccio italien drives to a sizzling close.

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

Antonin Dvorak

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

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Opus 95, From the New World

When Dvořák landed in America in the fall of 1892 to begin his three-year tenure as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, his new employers tried to turn his arrival into a specifically “American” occasion: they timed it to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America, an occasion the composer himself was to mark by writing a cantata on the poem The American Flag. Shortly after arriving, Dvořák announced his intention to write an opera on Longfellow’s Hiawatha, and the music he wrote in this country soon began to include “American” elements, from Indian rhythms and spirituals to a birdsong he heard in Iowa.

‘american’ sounds?

His use of these sounds touched off a debate that has lasted a century. Nationalistic American observers claimed that here at last was a true American classical music, based on authentic American elements. But others have pointed out that the musical characteristics that make up these “American” features (pentatonic melodies, flatted sevenths, extra cadential accents) are in fact common to folk music everywhere, and that far from being American, the works Dvořák composed in this country remain quintessentially Czech.

Dvořák himself gave contradictory signals on this matter. At the time of the premiere of the New World Symphony, he said: “The influence of America can be felt by anyone who has ‘a nose.’ ” Yet after his return to Europe, he wrote to a conductor who was preparing a performance in Berlin: “I am sending you Kretzschmar’s analysis of the symphony, but omit that nonsense about my having made use of ‘Indian’ and ‘American’ themes— that is a lie. I tried to write only in the spirit of those national American melodies.” Perhaps safest is Dvořák’s own simple description of the symphony: “Impressions and greetings from the New World.”

Composed in the first months of 1893, Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony had an absolutely triumphant premiere on December 16, 1893, by the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. One New York critic observed tartly of the thunderous ovation that followed each movement: “The staidness and solemn decorum of the Philharmonic audience took wings.” That occasion has been described as the greatest success of Dvořák’s life, and the surprised composer wrote to his publisher Simrock: “I had to show my gratitude like a king from the box in which I sat. It made me think of Mascagni in Vienna (don’t laugh!).”

adagio – allegro molto. One of the most impressive aspects of this music is Dvořák’s use of a single theme-shape to unify the entire symphony. This shape, a rising dotted figure, first appears in the slow introduction, where it surges up in the horns and lower strings as a foreshadowing of the Allegro molto: there it is sounded in its purest form by the horns. This theme (actually in two parts, the horn call and a dotted response from the woodwinds) becomes the basis for the entire movement: when the perky second subject arrives in the winds, it is revealed as simply a variation of the second part of the main theme. The third theme, a calm flute melody in G major that has been compared to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” seems at first to establish a separate identity, but in fact it is based on the rhythm of the main theme. That rhythm saturates the movement—within themes, as subtle accompaniment or thundered out by the full orchestra. A mighty climax, pushed ahead by stinging trumpet calls, combines all these themes.

largo. Solemn brass chords introduce the Largo, where the English horn sings a haunting melody that was later adapted as the music for the spiritual “Goin’ Home.” More animated material appears along the way, and the symphony’s central theme rises up ominously at the climax. But the English horn returns to lead this movement to its close on an imaginative stroke of orchestration: a quiet chord built on a four-part division of the double basses.

molto vivace. The Scherzo has sounded like “Indian” music to many listeners, and for good reason: Dvořák himself said that it “was suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance, and is also an essay I made in the direction of imparting the local color of Indian character to music.” The pounding opening section gives way to two brief trios, and in the coda the symphony’s central theme boils up one more time in the brass.

allegro con fuoco. After a fiery introduction, the sonata-form finale leaps to life with a ringing brass theme that is, for a change, entirely new. But now Dvořák springs a series of surprises. Back come themes from the first three movements (along with a quotation, doubtless unconscious, of “Three Blind Mice”). The movement drives toward its climax on the chords that opened the Largo, and it reaches that soaring climax as Dvořák ingeniously combines the main themes of the first movement and the finale. At the end, the composer has one final surprise: instead of ringing out decisively, the last chord is held and fades into silence.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals and strings

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.