Carl Maria von Weber
Overture to Oberon
Composer, conductor, pianist and critic Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber is considered one of the founders of Romanticism in Germany, in particular with his opera Der Freischütz, premiered in 1821. As an orchestrator he was an innovator, discovering and capitalizing on new characteristics and sonorities of many instruments, especially the horn and clarinet.
Weber was one of the most popular and sought-after musicians of his generation. As composer, conductor and opera manager he traveled and job hopped incessantly all over Europe, never settling for long in one place. But the combination of consumption and a workaholic personality killed him off at 39.
The opera Oberon was his last work. It was commissioned for the Royal Covent Garden Opera in London to an English text. Weber worked on it between 1825-26, intensively studying English in order to set the libretto appropriately. In spite of being gravely ill, traveled to London to oversee the production and conduct the premiere. He died a few weeks later.
The opera, which combines spoken dialogue and singing, is based on a convoluted fairytale not dissimilar to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It is a sequel of sorts to A Midsummer Night’s Dream combined a tale from The Thousand and One Nights. Yet, despite enormous problems in rehearsal, it pleased the English audience, if not the composer and subsequent generations. The Overture, in which Weber was free of the constraints of the awkward libretto, has remained a favorite.
Like most opera overtures of the period, this one is composed in sonata allegro form. In it he used various themes from the opera to create a magical atmosphere, starting with a slow introduction featuring the horn call, the magic summons to Oberon the elf-king, to rescue the hero, Huon. Weber picks up the tempo gradually in a second part of the introduction – also featuring a horn call. The first horn call is also used in the Allegro.
The main Allegro is a burst of excited upward arpeggios that avoids triteness by its asymmetry and delayed resolution. The most famous tune in the Overture, however, is the second theme, a beautiful clarinet solo low in its register.
Fantazia upon One Note
One of the greatest composers of the Baroque era and one of the greatest English composers of all time, Henry Purcell came from a distinguished family of musicians. Although he was employed in the royal courts of three British monarchs, Charles II, James II and William & Mary, little is known about his life. In 1679 he became organist of Westminster Abbey and in 1683 organ maker and keeper of the king’s instruments. He was greatly esteemed by his contemporaries, as can be seen from the burial tablet: “Here lyes Henry Purcell, Esq.; who left this life, and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded.”
In the year after Purcell’s birth, England emerged from the restrictive reign of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell, who had closed all of the theaters and generally cut Britain off from continental cultural influences. But with the Restoration and accession of Charles II, the theaters were reopened, and a flood of plays, masques and operas graced the British stage, nearly all of them with instrumental interludes and songs. Purcell made prodigious contributions to this flourishing of the arts. He composed in all the genres of the period: sacred and secular vocal music, as well as keyboard and chamber music.
Among Purcell’s little known works are a collection of fantazias, contrapuntal works for viol consort, composed early in his career and published in 1680. The title of Fantazia upon One Note is something of a misnomer and can easily be misunderstood by modern audiences. Purcell’s “one note” is just a simple drone, which persists uninterrupted in the tenor for the entire three-movement piece. The Fantazia is largely a series of pseudo-canons, which are neither circular nor exact. Each phrase begins a new canon for a couple of measures but then veers off on its own course until the next phrase. Therefore, technically, they are what in the stile antico (old style) counterpoint of the Renaissance were called “points of imitation.”
Against the drone of C in the tenor part, this little piece begins with a canon at the fifth a half measure apart between the bass and alto voices, while the two soprano parts play the canon in inversion (upside down). Throughout, Purcell emphasizes the imitative qualities without actually writing true canons. Every time one voice begins a new rhythmic idea, another one imitates it, but does not necessarily continue along the same path.
A native of Iran, Kayhan Kalhor is a composer and noted performer on the kamancheh (spike fiddle), a bowed string instrument from Persia that is considered one of the ancestors of the violin family. He is trained in the traditional music of various regions of Iran, as well as in Western music and now resides in the USA. In his albums he has cooperated extensively with Turkish, Kurdish and Iranian musicians. He has also worked extensively with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.
Silent Citypremiered in 2005 as an elegy to Halabjah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was completely razed by Saddam Hussein in 1988. Following Saddam’s fall, a new city gradually emerged from the ruins.
It is always risky to interpret or analyze music from a different culture, but Silent City clearly follows a narrative, generally from despair to hope, a mournful contemplation of the smoldering ruin that finally energizes into the rebuilding of the city.
Silent City begins in virtual silence, the sound of the kamancheh a barely audible keening that very gradually grows in volume without extending the narrow range of a melody that seldom extends beyond a perfect fourth. The effect is hypnotic, drawing the listener into the dirge. Lasting around 23 minutes, only in the final three does the tempo pick up and the rhythm become defined with the addition of background percussion. The dimensions of the piece are critical to the narrative; it takes far longer to mourn than to recover from despair – or to rebuild a city.
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97, Rhenish
In September 1850 Robert Schumann moved to Düsseldorf to take up his new position as the city’s municipal music director. It was the first time he had lived near the Rhine, the cradle of German legend and poetry. In the turmoil created by the move, his creative frenzy – the manic half of his bipolar personality – bore considerable fruit, and before the end of the year he had composed the Cello Concerto and the Third Symphony, written between November 2 and December 9.
The Third is by far the most programmatic of Schumann’s symphonies. Delighted by the potential of his new position and the outgoing nature of the people, he wrote the symphony in homage to his new home. He took two side-trips to Cologne where he visited its famous cathedral, at that time still unfinished after 620 years of intermittent construction. He was awed by the majesty of the building, a Gothic masterpiece. Although not a Catholic, he added an extra movement (the fourth) to the Symphony to celebrate the installation of a new cardinal, originally designating it “In the character of a procession for a solemn ceremony.” (He later removed the subtitle.)
The Symphony is extremely accessible, with clear-cut singable melodies. Schumann, one of the most prominent and outspoken aestheticians of the Romantic era, deliberately focused on striking a balance between giving this work popular appeal without sacrificing the dictates of high art.
The Third Symphony is the only one of Schumann’s symphonies without a slow introduction. Instead, it opens with a lively, sweeping theme. The second theme, while different in mood is also long. The exuberant mood reflects the composer’s pleasure at his new surroundings. This theme, imitating the flow of the river may, in fact, have influenced Wagner, whose Leitmotif representing the Rhine in The Ring is in the same expansive mood and 6/8 meter.
The third movement is really the “extra” one for a structure that usually at this time comprised four movements only. It is a charming intermezzo. After the main theme, Schumann goes on to state another one, which he develops more fully and whose first notes are a recurring rhythmic pattern. This movement represents one of the places where Schumann straddles the fence between popular and high art, using subtle shifting rhythms within accessible tunes. The following movement, however, leaves the masses behind, substituting awe with artistic popularism.
The scoring of the Symphony includes three trombones, but these are silent for the first three movements. They then burst upon the scene suddenly in the fourth movement to maximum effect, introducing the majestic theme in, as Schumann called it, the so-called “cathedral” movement, referring both to the composer’s visit to the Cologne Cathedral and to the solemn contrapuntal style of the sixteenth century. Schumann introduces the principal theme as a fugue for the trombones and horns, the pianissimo pizzicato basses beating time in the slow “processional.” Schumann develops the theme with all the contrapuntal flourishes, as in this example where the theme is presented in diminution (short note values) against the theme in its original form – most certainly a nod to one of his idols, J. S. Bach.
In the fifth movement, we are back outside in the sunny Rhineland. Schumann unleashes a volley of short tunes. & & Before the end, he take one more crack at the theme of the fourth movement, here transformed into the major mode, speeded up – but still contrapuntal.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016